Last fall I had the pleasure of going on my very first visit to Japan. It was an otherworldly experience that's taken some time to process—I mean, the taxi doors open by themselves, the toilets bowls wash you and vending machines dispense delicacies like warm sake and fresh brewed coffee, ground to order. In other words, if life is about the details, it seems that the Japanese have mastered the art of living. I already knew I loved Japanese food. But here are a few more things that I learned during my time in Tokyo and the neighboring Saitama and Chiba prefectures:
1) The cats in Japan are really cute
If you're familiar with my Instagram feed, then you know I'm cat crazy. Well, not only is Japan home of Maru, the world's cutest and most famous Internet cat. It's also home to the phenomenon of the feline station master. It is what it sounds like—cats who live in train stations and are in charge of them, too. I felt very fortunate to catch these three bosses eating breakfast at Goi station on the Kominato Line in Ichira, Chiba.
2) The clothes are very cool
When I found out that putting on a kimono and walking around the old town of Kawaoge in said garb was on the agenda, I have to admit, I was a bit reluctant. Having grown up in Massachusetts, this seemed like the equivalent of going to Friendly's dressed as a butter-churning guide from Old Sturbridge Village. But after choosing my kimono, being swaddled in the costume and stepping out amidst the shopkeepers and tourists, I discovered that wearing the traditional clothing wasn't something hapless foreigners do as part of a mild hazing ritual. Even if you're not Japanese, putting on a kimono is considered a sign of respect for the culture. I also learned that loosening the belt of one's kimono is an excellent, if unintentional, way to attract the attention of doting Japanese grannies who not once, but twice, stopped me to adjust my outfit.
3) The vending machines will blow your mind
Whether you're seeking thimble-sized shiba inu figurines or tiny plastic mice nestled among dumplings in nickel-sized steam baskets (I bought both of these from the tempting toy machines at Umi-Hotaru Parking Area, a glorified food court/parking garage in the middle of Tokyo Bay), Japan is for you. The vending machines know no bounds. And they're not just for precious souvenirs. You want a warm sake on a cold autumn night? You're in luck. And while machine coffee in the US is a last resort relegated to forlorn highway rest stops, the ones in Japan are next level. An average Japanese convenience store is likely to have a machine that grinds and brews each cup of coffee to order. Of course, it tastes amazing.
4) You'll drink the best cocktails in the world
Okay, so I haven't tried all of the cocktails in the world. But if anyone makes better cocktails than what I tasted in Tokyo, my, what a wonderful world we live in. This is me, sipping the equivalent of a freshly-squeezed alcoholic strawberry at Bar Radio, one of the many destination-worthy cocktail bars in the city, of which I tried two. The other was Gen Yamamoto, where the experience was even more profound. Bad pun, but the namesake bartender, who serves cocktail flights in an intimate boîte, raised the (ahem) bar for drinking. He juices and strains each piece of cocktail-bound produce, like persimmon or sweet potato (!), right in front of you, all while wearing an impeccable white jacket. (He doesn't make a mess.) Said juice is bound in marriage to a soul mate of a spirit, which Gen hands to you in an art-object glass. The drinks are intoxicating because there's alcohol, but even moreso, because they're delicious.
5) The bathing culture is incredible
One of the things that Japanese expats say they miss most is the country's bathing culture. I believe it. I stayed at two traditional Japanese inns, called ryokans, which served as my introductions to Japanese bath life. As it turns out, it is the life for me. Upon checking into the ryokan, guests are expected to strip themselves of outside clothes and don bathrobe uniforms to be worn everywhere, from the communal bath to the dining room. Removing that sartorial pressure, not to mention dirty clothes, is unexpectedly freeing. So is taking a soak with your friends. While there are all kinds of nuances to bathing in Japan that I couldn't possibly be aware of, the pure calm and simplicity of the spring-fed bath pictured here at Ryokan Takimien needed no translation.
6) Did I mention the food is amazing?
There is nothing like eating in Japan. Whether you're in the over-the-top food court of the Depachika department stores—which boggled my mind like I was a Soviet in an American supermarket—or cutting into a perfect breaded and fried pork cutlet at Tonkatsu Maisen, this is an eater's paradise. Ramen? Check. Simple, soul-satisfying soba? Check. State of the art street food? Yup. Egg cakes shaped like teddy bears? Yessir. Fine dining that surpasses that of Paris and New York? Check, check. In other words, if you like to eat, start planning your trip.