It’s a little bit unfair. Gustavo is a huge fan of anime and is much, much more familiar with Japanese culture than me. But I ended up being the one to visit first.
We talked about going together, but with the possible move so close, we felt like it didn’t make sense to prioritize such a big trip right now. Instead, it was just me that stayed in Japan for nearly two weeks on a work trip.
It was amazing!
Our phone calls were the best. The whole time, I kept telling Gustavo about all these little things that I noticed and loved. Each time, he’d say, “I know, I told you you’d love it!” He was absolutely right.
I stayed in Kobe, Japan, which is about an hour plane ride south of Tokyo. My total travel time over was about 36 hours – or, at least, it should have been. There was a bad snowstorm in Newark the night I was leaving, so I got to the airport about four hours early. That’s also the same night that I learned Newark airport’s shops don’t open until 4 am.
I went west, via San Francisco, finally landing in Tokyo before hopping on a very short hour-long plane ride to Kobe airport. By the time I landed, I could barely stand. I’ve been struggling to sleep well on planes, lately, and I didn’t get much shuteye on my way over.
On the way back home, however, I had a very long (8 hours) layover in Tokyo’s Haneda airport which was, surprisingly, relaxing. Despite some issues with my first flight – which involved only having one hour for a plane full of Westerners to check in, check their bags, and make it through security – I made it to Tokyo at the exact time as planned. I didn’t trust Japanese efficiency and, boy, was I proven wrong.
During my long layover at the Haneda airport, I explored the Edo Market on the 4th floor of the International Terminal. I knew I’d have a lot of time to kill and I had gone back and forth about whether or not to try making my way into Tokyo itself. I was a little concerned since I was so unfamiliar with the transit system, so I opted to explore the airport and, in particular, this little section.
- I got a massage at the Raffine Spa in the Edo Market. It was about $40, including a tea and a little set of clothes they provide to you for the massage itself. It was a huge relief after so many hours of walking around.
- I explored the Starry Café, a.k.a. the planetarium cafe on the 5th floor of the building. With a 750 yen cover fee, plus a drink, you can sit inside the planetarium as it shows different presentations of both the constellations and different landmarks in Tokyo.
- I walked around the Observation Deck to get some sun in before the long, long flight home. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day out, so I took my time walking around the deck.
- I shopped. A lot. I grabbed some 24k gold face masks from Makenai, I bought everything matcha-flavored that I could possibly find, and scoured some good anime gifts to bring home in the Tokyo Pop Shop.
What I saw
While in Kobe, I had a bit of time to explore the city. Overall, my first impression was how safe it seemed to be. When I arrived, it was relatively late at night and I was concerned about taking a taxi by myself. I had nothing to be stressed about. It was so safe! Not to mention that taxis seemed to be driven exclusively by grandfatherly men who had crocheted decorations over all of the seats. (For real.)
I stayed on Port Island, near the conference center, so I took the Portliner train into the center of the city when I wanted to explore. It was super easy, but things fell apart for me when I tried to transfer to one of the local subway lines since those weren’t in English. Nevertheless, there was a ton to see just around the Sannomiya station itself, including Kobe’s Chinatown and the Ikuta Shrine.
I also visited Port Tower one day, walking around Meriken park and all the way back to Sannomiya station – with quite a bit of shopping done in between. (I even bought a dress, which I’m still really excited about since I got it done despite the language barrier!)
Oh! And I also got to visit the Fukuju sake brewery, which included a short tour of the facilities. There’s sake in there!
I very recently started eating fish which, honestly, was good timing because there weren’t a lot of vegetarian options.
And while my favorite food discovery was the FamilyMart store in our hotel, I ate some amazing (and different) stuff in Japan. I was very, very far out of my comfort zone!
Kobe is best known for, well, Kobe beef. I obviously didn’t have any of this (though everyone said it was extremely tender and delicious), but I did have a lot of sushi. I honestly had no idea what kind of fish I was eating most of the time, aside from toro and a few others. It was extremely fresh. There were also a lot of… different textures. Some of which worked well with me, others didn’t. Overall, 1000/10, would recommend sushi in Japan.
What to know
I feel like I’d need to spend more time in Kobe to better understand any cultural differences or expectations that I might not have picked up on. But, a few tips:
- Bring cash with you. A lot of stores and taxi drivers didn’t take cash, so it was handy to have some yen on hand.
- And by “some” yen, I’m talking a couple thousand. As an American, I tended to move the decimal point to the left by two digits to get a rough idea of what I was paying in USD. So if something was 10,000 yen, it was probably about 100 dollars.
- Always take your shoes off when going into a carpeted area. I went into a dressing room with my shoes on and the shop attendant kindly reminded me not to do that. (I felt terrible!)
- Taxi doors do, indeed, close and open on their own. So don’t try to shut them.
- I preferred to keep my visible tattoos and piercings to a minimum. There are a lot of tourists visiting Japan, so it’s not uncommon to see. Nevertheless, based on cultural connotations and history, I felt more comfortable dressing a bit more conservatively.
- When handing something to someone, use two hands. It’s more polite and a sign of respect. (It took me a few trips to the convenience store when paying with my credit card to pick up on this one.)
- On that note, food in convenience stores is cheap – but also really good, and probably better quality than we’ll ever see back home. FamilyMart sushi was my lunch almost every day.
- Up your respect game by about 1000 percent. As someone who’s very quiet, it was really nice to be in a culture that assumes respect between folks from the get-go. Bowing, saying “please” and “thank you,” and allowing others to go first was paramount.
- If you’re vegetarian, let the waiter or waitress know to see if they can work with you. I had an “incident” with some foie gras (of all things) at one restaurant. The next night, when I specified that I only ate seafood, the cook went out of his way to make sure that even the broth they provided in between courses was made with seafood – rather than the typical chicken stock.
- Download Google Translate! The places you want to eat won’t have English menus anyway, but Google Translate does pretty well if you use the camera tool. It lets you take a picture and then use your finger to highlight the text you want to translate. This was a godsend.
If you’ve been to Japan, or are hoping to go in the future, I would love to hear about your experience. I very much want to go back – next time, with Gustavo! – and would love to add some ideas to our itinerary.