Assorted Takes of Assorted Hotness About My Trip to Japan

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I recently got back from a 12 day, 10 night trip to Japan. The itinerary was as follows:

  1. LAX -> HND
  2. Four days in Tokyo, including two tours, a free day, and a partial travel day
  3. Three days in Kyoto, including a single tour, and a partial travel day
  4. Three days in Osaka, undirected
  5. KIX -> HND -> LAX

First - a mini review of Exoticca

We found a package deal from Exoticca (this is not an affiliate link - nor would I ever do such a thing) (also - a somewhat unfortunate name) for $2600 per person that included flights, hotels, tours, and ground transportation, for 5/31 -> 6/11. The price was lower than other dates, which I think was probably due to the timing; right after the end of the school year (but not for everyone), as well as the start of the rainy season.

Overall, the experience with Exoticca was great, but a few small points of friction stuck out that I wanted to mention:

  1. We thought that we had booked two beds and consistently received one, but in retrospect that may have been a miscommunication or misunderstanding; all of the receipts that I have say “1 double bed”. However, to add to the confusion, the PDF template for the itinerary says “per person” next to “1 double bed”.
  2. I’m sure they’re just getting it from TripAdvisor or something, but we found that the Tokyo City Tour (Physical Rating - 1 out of 4, Light) was MUCH more strenuous than the Mt Fuji Excursion (Physical Rating - 2 out of 4, Moderate). Perhaps jetlag or general unpreparedness was to blame, but there was definitely more walking for the former than the latter.
  3. The 72-hour Tokyo Metro pass was marvelously useful, and would have been very useful to have something similar for the three undirected days in Osaka; only a single day pass was included. Not the biggest deal.
  4. Some of the tour itineraries were out of date - the Kyoto tour, for example, didn’t end with a train ride back to the station, but rather the bus dropped us back where we started. Similarly, the Mt Fuji tour included an option to take a bullet train or local train back to Tokyo, taking 1 or 2 hrs, respectively, for additional charge, or take the bus which may take up to 3 hrs depending on traffic. This being the case, it was rational (and more fun) to take the bullet train, but it was a JPY 4000 extra charge per person that wasn’t anticipated.

Alright - Now the Takes

🔥 - The Tokyo Metro system is amazing

Obviously everyone says this, but to experience it firsthand is something else. While we stayed mostly in the inner core neighborhoods (Shibuya, Shinjuku, Akasaka-Mitsuke, Akihabara, etc..), we almost never had to transfer lines. The time between trains was consistently less than 5 minutes, and we rarely, if ever waited more than like 2 or 3 minutes. The quality and timeliness of the service was definitely noticeable in comparison to Kyoto and Osaka (which were also good, but Tokyo was just amazing)

🔥 - Kyoto is a noticeably small place

Kyoto was the second leg of the trip, after Tokyo. Perhaps it’s this transition that heightens the perception, but the scale and pace of Kyoto is just a smaller and slower than Tokyo. Many things closed at 7pm, or 9pm if we’re lucky, and it was also noticeably quieter when you’re out and about. The Kyoto tour, geographically took us to all the different corners of the city; the guide remarked on this too. To do the same thing in Tokyo would take days!

🔥 - Credit cards were pretty broadly accepted, at least in the tourist areas

Although there’s a lot of thought out there about how Japan is still a “cash-based society”, I was able to use a credit card for upwards of 90% of transactions. It was mainly very small restaurants that were cash-only, but even then quite a few were able to accept cards. Granted, we tended to stay in very central or tourist-y areas, but if you have a card without foreign transactions fees, then the prevailing advice to bring plenty of cash is not necessarily practical. In addition, if you do need cash, the fees for getting cash from ATMs (at least, on the ATM operator’s side) were quite reasonable.

🔥🔥 - Japan is a pin country, not a magnet country, apparently

Famously, I like to get magnets from places I visit. I also really like the enamel aesthetic, so I’ve always prioritized that kind of magnet. However, in Japan it was much easier to get enamel pins than magnets, so now I own like 20 different pins from just this trip. I’ll have to find some way to display them. Perhaps its because stainless steel finishes aren’t magnetic and largely omnipresent, so you can’t put them on your fridge anymore.

🔥🔥 - Overtourism is real, especially in Kyoto and Osaka

Perhaps Tokyo did a better job of managing crowds, or is a large enough space that it doesn’t come across, but I found it difficult to enjoy the sights in Kyoto and Osaka because of how many people were there. Especially in Kyoto (again, a Small Place), the main tourist haunts were incredibly crowded, and it was hard to get even a single picture without others in it.

🔥🔥 - TikTok Famous Places are usually good in Japan

I’ve had quite a mixed experience visiting TikTok Famous places, but in Japan they were consistently good. A few of the TikTok Famous places we went to and enjoyed, and how long we had to wait:

We did also try to get a reservation for Omurice Kichi-Kichi in Kyoto, but the website crashed as we were trying to get a reservation.

🔥🔥 - If I had to do it again, I would do fewer tours

Going into the experience, I was pretty sure that I would not have a great time on the tours. It’s just not something that I’ve enjoyed, historically, nor is it how I prefer to take in an urban area (rather, I prefer neighborhood-based immersion/exploration). However, I treated it like a crash course in the history and culture of Japan, and I think that it served that purpose. In doing so, the pace felt quite rushed, and I don’t feel like I fully saw all of the attractions that we stopped at.

So, I don’t regret doing the tours, but I don’t feel the need to do it again. I think the next time I go, I would try and spend more time exploring neighborhoods at a slower pace.

🔥🔥🔥 - Americans conflate crowds with disorder, and I’m guilty of it sometimes too

I think it’s fair to say that Americans have a different expectation of personal space and boundaries than is prevalent in Japan. America, being simply a larger country has more space per-capita. So, some of the expectations that we have about what a “busy” place looks like is informed simply by how many people are there. I think that this is part of the reason that American conservatives perceive cities as disorderly places and suburbs as orderly and safe. However, in Japan (and especially Tokyo), I found that the sheer number of people is just a function of what the space is being used for, and as we stuck to mostly urban areas, the most common place we found ourself was inside train stations - simply a place where lots of people are going to other places.

I personally had the same impression initially of Dotonbori (in Osaka) - lots of people going everywhere so it was hard to get around and hard to enjoy. However, anecdotally, once you leave the main drag, there are fewer people, and also (as demonstrated above) there is minimal correlation between the number of people (even on places that are on the main drag and/or TikTok famous) and the wait time.

The other reason, of course, that American conservatives dislike cities is racism, which is stupid, and if you’re reading this and thinking “I’m a conservative and I’m not racist”, yes you are. Stop it.

🔥🔥🔥 - Google Chrome was a more useful browser than Firefox, unfortunately

I prefer to use Firefox for a variety of reasons, not the least that Chrome is becoming a monoculture, which is bad for a free internet. However, one thing that was extremely useful in Japan was in-browser translation, and that feature was simply not available for Firefox. As a result, I often found myself copy/pasting links into Chrome. A less stubborn person would have just used Chrome for everything, but you know - monoculture bad.

Frustratingly, I also found that Capital One’s implementation of 3DS tap-to-verify (they call it “Airkey”) didn’t work with Firefox. I got super excited inside Gyukatsu Momotura when I was offered the opportunity to try it out, and the people next us thought I was trying to take a selfie with the group and offered to take a picture for us.

🔥🔥🔥 - I feel like I have an encyclopedic knowledge of tourist merch now

Obviously I mean this more figuratively than literal, but I feel like there’s about 200-300 core pieces of merchandise that you see in tourist stores (Don Quijote for example), and I feel like I’ve seen them all. Maybe some of this is because we did go to Donki about four times throughout the trip, but I feel like I could stock one by heart. Also - I think Donki is a great example of how its possible to lack internal logic for how things are arranged in a store, but still somehow lay out every store consistently. It’s weird.

🔥🔥🔥🔥 - The escalator norms in Osaka are impractical

I’ve always heard that visitors to Japan are always left with an impression by the escalator norms, and the same thing happened to me - in Tokyo, it was incredibly consistent to see people standing on the left, allowing people to walk on the right. And of course, this happened even if nobody was trying to walk on the right. In Osaka, though, the prevailing norm is to stand on the right, allow walkers on the left.

There’s nothing wrong with having a different norm, of course, but people still preferred to walk on the left when not on an escalator - this mandates crossing over the walking lane when you get off an escalator as a stander. Quite often, right after leaving an escalator, I found myself in front of a wall of people walking the opposite direction, and had to play some frogger to get back to the left.

Furthermore, in large department stores, escalators are still routed with the left-handed norm in mind, so if you need to get on an escalator immediately after leaving another one, you necessarily have to cross a stream of people who just walked up the same escalator that you just left.

🔥🔥🔥🔥 - Super Classic is a delightful place

Now, a niche one - famously, I’m an enthusiast of the Happy Hacking Keyboard, and one of my side quests on this trip was to acquire another one - the mini-USB HHKB Pro 2 that I’ve been using is having occasional connectivity problems, and I’ve supplemented it with a Tokyo60, but it’s a MX board, not Topre.

So - as it turns out, there’s really only one place left that sells HHKBs from a storefront, and it’s Super Classic. The thing about visiting Super Classic, though, is that even though they have three different locations (Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagoya), each of those locations keeps truly bizarre hours. For example, the Tokyo location, in Shinjuku, is open alternating Saturdays and Sundays from 2-6pm, and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12-3pm.

I ended up visiting the Osaka location and it was on the fifth floor of a non-descript office building (the note on their website - “It’s the Kyoei building, not the New Kyoei Building, not the Koei building”), and it was sort of a heaven for the type of person that likes mechanical keyboards, minimalist wallets, and intensely designed computer bags. Picture that Venn diagram, and put me right in the middle (and draw a thought bubble of me thinking about the Triangle Commuter Bag).

The salesperson was very nice, and offered to help me try out the keyboards with their tablet - and then a bit startled when I declined because “I already know which one I want, thanks”. I ended up getting a HHKB Pro Hybrid (non-Type-S). The energy was infectious too, a friend that we had made on the trip came with us and walked out with a 2-Way Business Backpack. Also, I know that I mentioned that I preferred the HHKB over the Tokyo60 because the latter is a MX Board, I did get a chance to try the HHKB Studio and ended up buying one open box from Amazon. The integrated trackpoint is just toooooo compelling for me to pass up… There’s not a ton of hands-on reviews about the HHKB Studio, so I’ll probably write once I have some time with it.

Anyway - consider this my contribution to mechanical keyboard lore - as of June 2024, aside from Super Classic, if you’re looking for Topre in person, you can get Realforce keyboards at some Bic Cameras (I saw them at the one in Akihabara), and both Bic Camera and Yobodashi Camera have Keychron and Filco. Both stores also have a full complement of Razer and Logitech. Bic Camera also had some pretty esoteric looking Full-Size and TKL keyboards that had trackpoints, but they also used a Mini-USB interface so I had to pass.

🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥 - Tax Free was everywhere, and I don’t want it

The ubiquity of tax-free shops that only foreigners can practically take advantage of made me uncomfortable because:

  1. JPY is historically weak right now compared to USD, so there’s already enhanced buying power for Americans. However, I understand that these stores are already built and used to providing the discount as part of their business model, so this is a difficult policy to reverse or change in response to movements in the value of the currency.
  2. This is a pretty classic example of (time-after-time, disproven) supply-side economics - theoretically, tourism brings benefits to the business owners in the area, which they can then use to hire more people, etc… But don’t tourists also place a strain on the infrastructure of an area? We probably took public transportation at least 3 times per day on average. Also, the corporatist nature of Japanese government (perhaps even more so than the American one) means that realistically only very large businesses benefit from these policies - indeed, there were a few very prominent tax-free brands that all sold the same stuff from the same (also very large) brands. The minimum spend requirement of JPY 5000 also doesn’t make sense if you’re trying to help small businesses.
  3. Admittedly, this comes from a place of privilege, but I don’t find a 10% discount that compelling.

Thankfully, opting out is relatively easy; since most places that do tax-free have a special checkout you need to use, so I usually just didn’t use that one. Hopefully, they can build a road or something with all the money that I just spent.

🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥 - I might not like Japanese food

Before this trip, I’d heard the occasional whisper from People Online that they found Japanese food to be bland or uninteresting. I’d mostly written it off, but coming out of this trip… I kind of find myself agreeing with them?

I think what’s happening here is that I’m very used to the Chinese flavor palette, which is quite spiced (as in, using a large amount of many different spices). However, the Japanese food I had was much more subtle - I found that it was quite common to find interesting textures, such as the softness of souffle pancakes or mochi, or richness, such as the beef fat in yakiniku (I dream about wagyu now) or the mayo in potato salad (interestingly, mayo was very common).

I do think that on average, the food I had was more thoroughly seasoned and flavorful than typical middle-american fare; I’m imagining prototypically tater tots and chicken tenders, or Kraft mac-and-cheese. So, if that’s your baseline then I think Japanese food is a very safe way to expand your horizons.

So, it was a little different than what I was expecting. I didn’t find it unenjoyable or unpleasant - in fact, I deeply appreciate the ready availability of fried chicken - but, it was less of a flavor explosion than I was expecting.