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. 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. 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.