This Country Has A Style That's All Its Own

Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
On May 24, 2014, my fiancé, Andy, and I got married in New York City. A week later, we hopped on a plane with two carry-on suitcases and two one-way tickets to Paris. We had just pressed pause on our careers, sublet our apartment, and moved all of our things into storage. The only plan was to have no plans at all — and we ended up traveling for 394 days through 25 countries, stopping in nearly 100 destinations. Over the next few weeks, come along on this crazy journey to learn more about how we did it — packing, plotting, budgeting — and see some of the tens of thousands of photos we took along the way.

After five months of travel, we finally got to see some familiar faces again. Our dear friends from home had planned to take a vacation in December and wanted to meet up with us on our journey. We were able to align schedules and land on Japan as a meeting ground. I was over the moon because Japan had been at the top of my must-see list for years. By the time our three weeks together had concluded, we’d traversed the dizzying streets of Tokyo, swam naked in the scalding hot springs near Nagano, and appreciated the rich history and beauty of Kyoto.

No other country embodies beauty to me more than Japan. Every aspect of life and culture feels like an art form — from its efficient, meticulous trains to the elegant, courteous nature of its people. Its customs and crafts are executed in painstaking detail — patterned kimonos, painted geishas, bonsai trees, tea ceremonies, and Zen gardens. This approach is carried into the cuisine, as well. It’s hard to beat the quality of seafood in Japan or the complexity of flavors in their noodle dishes and broths. You won’t find a more thoughtful, beautiful presentation of food in the world.

Everything feels considered in Japan. As a designer, minimalist, and perfectionist, I thought it would be heaven. And it did not disappoint.

We got to experience the storybook version of Japan in Kyoto, a city that feels frozen in time, and contrasted that with the ever-evolving, forward-moving Tokyo. And in between, we got a peek at the untouched natural beauty surrounding this island country. Like many places we visited, Japan manages to be absolutely ancient and mindblowingly futuristic at the same time. I can’t wait to go back and uncover more of this mysterious culture, this mash-up of eras and this style that is so uniquely their own.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
There are areas in Tokyo where every corner feels like Times Square. This is a city that truly utilizes its vertical space, with neon signs drawing you in to establishments on every single floor of a building. Not an inch is wasted. We stayed in Shinjuku — the large entertainment, business, and shopping area at the heart of the city.

Shinjuku station is the busiest railway station in the world with over two million people passing through every day. Thanks to our years of city living, Andy and I were able to navigate pretty much any public transportation system we came across on our travels, even in foreign languages. But Tokyo took it to the next level. We had never seen a more complex subway map. Even four New Yorkers couldn’t decipher it.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Tokyo is dense in a way that I had never seen in another city. While New York City is dense, it’s most compact in the centralized island of Manhattan. But Tokyo feels like 10 Manhattans spread across Brooklyn and New Jersey and beyond. These are some views from the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
What fascinated me the most about Tokyo was how incredibly familiar the city felt, but how shockingly different, and seemingly bizarre, so many parts of the culture were to us. It gave you that twilight zone feeling where you thought you knew the game, but the players were different, and the rules had totally changed. Case in point: this six-story glass building that I mistook for some kind of mall, but turned out to be an enormous arcade in the heart of a buzzing district. And it wasn’t just filled with teenagers, but businessmen, who played these video games around the clock.

We ducked inside to find out what in the world was on their screens and were instantly hit with a thick cloud of smoke. There was even a pop-up shower in the corner of the arcade, for a five minute refresh before you went back to hours in front of the mermaid game.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Golden Gai is a small area of Shinjuku which consists of just six narrow alleys. Squeezed into these narrow passageways are over 200 compact bars, eateries, and clubs — many only able to fit six customers at a time. Golden Gai is a perfectly preserved slice of old Tokyo nestled between the modern high-rises that are the hallmark of new Tokyo.

Many of the bars seem themed or cater to different clientele, and the majority of them only serve regulars or locals. A couple of times bartenders threw up their arms in the shape of an X when we walked in, indicating that tourists weren’t welcome. We could respect that. It was fun to just walk through the streets and peek into these miniature worlds. We eventually found a spot that took us in, and we spent a long night squeezed in the most compact bar of all time drinking rounds of sake.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
One afternoon, we checked out Omotesando — a popular and swanky neighborhood in Toyko. Hidden in the back of a machiya (traditional wooden house) in the residential area is Omotesando Koffee. This hole-in-the-wall establishment exemplifies the Japanese love of precision and attention to detail. The space is everything you would expect in a Japanese coffee shop — minimalistic, clean, and efficient. There’s only one barista in the 10-by-10 foot space and each drink is lovingly crafted to perfection over the course of 10 to 15 minutes.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Another day, we set out to explore the Akihabara district, known as a major shopping hub for electronics, video games, anime, manga, and computer goods. In reality, the whole area kind of felt like a reaction to Japan’s sexual repression. There are fetish shops, multiple-story buildings selling nothing but sexy anime toys, and an abundance of maid cafes.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A cultural concept that may throw you off in Japan is that cute equals sexy. The cuter, younger, and more innocent the girl looks, the hotter she is. You should google Hatsune Miku. She’s a virtual pop star, who’s supposed to be a 16-year-old girl with pigtails, and I’ve seen videos of grown men weeping with sheer joy at her "concerts." I’m not saying it’s wrong, it’s just so different from what I'm used to. We wandered the endless aisles of these stores, in the middle of the day, and were surprised to find them packed with people of every age. Middle-aged men were stocking up on expensive anime toys, and young girls were reading the manga — Japanese comic books or graphic novels usually with adult, sexualized themes.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Another popular attraction in Akihabara are the maid cafes. These are themed restaurants where waitresses dress up like maids and serve you. It sounds kinky, but it’s anything but. The maids are there to be cute and basically just hang out with you. They’re over-the-top bubbly, speak in high-pitched voices, chant "spells" onto your food (which are supposed to make it taste better), and arrange it in the shape of teddy bears or kittens. Oh, and we had to wear bunny and kitten ears while we dined. Amazing.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Shibuya crossing is said to be the world’s busiest intersection. When the lights turn, people come pouring into the street from every direction with no rhyme or reason. It’s quintessential Tokyo chaos.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Do not leave Tokyo without eating ramen at Ichiran Ramen in Shinjuku. Go not only for the near perfect bowl of noodles, but for the experience. You may find yourself in a line that snakes up the stairs, from the basement-level shop, and nearly out into the street. Once inside, you place your order in a vending machine. (You can get just about anything out of vending machine in Tokyo.) Then, you’re handed a piece of paper where you choose the details of your ramen — flavor strength, richness, noodle texture, etc. Then, you sit on a long bench and wait for your number to be called. You’ll be led to an area with two back-to-back rows of diners, all eating their meals within individual booths. You sit down, this sliding door opens up, and you’re handed your order to be consumed in near silence and with total focus.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Where do I even start with this? I would advise you to watch Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown "Tokyo After Dark" episode. It will cover just about everything we experienced in this mind-boggling city. This is the beginning of our night at the Robot Restaurant…
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
...which is pretty much the greatest show on Earth. Upon entering the space, we walked into a lounge area where we found a robot band playing Mariah Carey’s "All I Want for Christmas." Toy brontosauri walked across our tables, as we took in the hallucinogenic decor covering every inch of the walls, floors, and ceiling. We were led to the basement level, where we sat in our front-row seats and watched as a chain-link fence was stretched in front of us and we were offered beer from women in bunny ears. We were handed glow sticks and a pretty mediocre boxed dinner — but food is not the main attraction at this restaurant. It’s robots, dinosaurs, gorillas, lasers, sharks, tanks, lights...
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
...and sexy, but mostly adorable, women riding on huge cyborg women. Whaaat?! It has to be seen to be believed.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
When in Tokyo… play in a Beauty Muse 2 photo booth in a six-story arcade and give yourself an anime-esque face lift.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Touchscreen sushi is 100 times more fun than conveyor-belt sushi. Try it at Uobei in Shibuya. Each seat has its own touchscreen device, where you can scroll through the menu and place an order for three items at a time. Within minutes a little tray shoots out across the three tiers of shelves in front of you. You pick it up, hit a button, and the tray shoots back toward the kitchen. Very Jetsons-esque. There’s even a little faucet for hot tea at every seat. We couldn’t believe how large, fresh, and cheap the sushi was: $1 for each beautiful piece of nigiri.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We spent one afternoon walking around the Harajuku shopping district, famous for its youth culture and anything-goes street fashion scene. There are actually fashion tribes in Harajuku representing very distinct looks. These girls are rocking the Decora style which is all about decorating yourself with brightly colored hair clips and accessories, toys and jewelry. You can hear them coming from a mile away, as their plastic accessories click together.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
One of our favorite things to eat was okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake. Okonomiyaki literally means "grilled as you like it" in Japanese, so the ingredients and preparation depends on your preferences. It’s often referred to as the Japanese pizza. This particular version was cooked on this griddle countertop with udon noodles, cabbage, pork, egg, green onions, red pickled ginger, and many other secret goodies, I’m sure. We loved using these spatulas as cutting and eating utensils.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
From Tokyo, we took the bullet train to Yudanaka Onsen, the hot springs resort in Yamanouchi, a village in northern Nagano. It was shocking to step off the train and be greeted by this mountainous, snowy, peaceful setting after just getting assimilated to bustling Tokyo. One of our first goals was to see the snow monkeys at the nearby Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. It was the first, and last, time we ran into snow on our 394 day journey. Needless to say, we weren’t exactly prepared, but we slipped and slided through the snowy terrain in our sneakers until we made it to the park.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
It was pretty hilarious watching these monkeys lounge, groom each other, and socialize in the steaming natural hot springs. I was amazed at how calm they were around humans, especially humans shoving cameras in their faces. What you don’t see in this shot are about five telephoto lenses, a zillion point-and-shoot cameras, and one camcorder, which was actually being pried from the hands of its owner by one fearless monkey. As fun as it was to watch them, I felt bad for being a part of the tourist machine invading their habitat.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Back in town, we stayed in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn which originated in the Edo period. Our room was complete with sliding paper screen windows and tatami mats. We were given these yukatas, cotton robes, to wear around the inn and when heading out to the onsens — the hot spring baths that lined the streets of this little village.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We were also given geta, the traditional Japanese sandal that has an elevated wooden base.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Our ryokan owners gave us a map and a key that unlocks the door to every onsen in town. We headed out into the frigid air in all of our gear, as our wooden shoes clicked against the cobblestone streets, in search of our first public onsen experience. We had already experimented with the hot bath inside of our own inn on the first night, and quickly learned that we were pretty big babies. This water is no joke. It is H-O-T! So hot that Andy had to get out because he nearly fainted on his first dip in. On top of the shock of the water temperature, we learned that onsens were segregated by gender and that you had to be, well, completely naked.

This is an example of one of the open-air foot baths along the snowy streets of the village.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
It took us quite a while to get used to the heat, and to brave it completely naked with strangers, but the Japanese tourists took it in stride. While we shook like chihuahuas attempting to lower a big toe in, they nearly canon balled into the scalding water.

Here’s the sign above a women's onsen.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Another amazing part of the ryokan experience was the food. We were served kaiseki, the traditional Japanese meal consisting of a number of small dishes. Every breakfast and dinner was a smorgasbord of colors and flavors. We ate sitting on the floor in our yukatas and couldn’t help but feel transported to another time.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
On our way to Kyoto, we got picture perfect views of Mount Fuji in the distance.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
While Tokyo, and most of Japan, has embraced modernity and technology, Kyoto is like a portal to the past. It escaped destruction in WWII. As in, it was literally removed from the atomic bomb target list by the U.S. Secretary of War, who wanted to spare this cultural gem he came to know and love on his honeymoon. It was the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years and has managed to maintain much of its original architecture, temples, and traditions. It’s probably what you think of when you imagine Japan — geishas, Zen gardens, tea ceremonies, traditional ryokans, centuries-old crafts, and colorful Shinto shrines.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The paper lanterns that seem to line every street in Kyoto.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Pagoda tower in Jishu Jinja Shrine, which is part of the ancient Buddhist temple, Kiyomizu-dera.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Renting kimonos and strolling around attractions seemed very popular among Asian tourists in Kyoto. I think this traditional dress is absolutely gorgeous, so I understand the appeal, but I couldn’t help think of what the American equivalent to this would be — people walking around in powdered wigs as they toured the White House? Not nearly as enchanting…
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
This image was familiar to me before we went to Japan, but I had no idea that it was part of the Fushimi Inari Shrine. This is just a small section of the 10,000 small torii (shrine gates) that snake a pathway up and around the wooded forest of Mount Inari. Dating back to 711 AD, it’s one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto, and is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. In the modern day, Inari is a symbol of prosperity. Businessmen and individuals who are thankful for their success continue to donate these brilliant orange gates.

When we started down the path, we had no idea there were tens of thousands of gates yet to pass through. It took us two to three hours to get to the top of the mountain and and back down, but it ended up being one of the of most unique and striking sights we saw in Kyoto.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Octopus balls, or takoyaki, are a very popular street snack in Japan. This man is pouring the batter into this round muffin-like tins. He tosses a chunk of octopus into the center of each and continues to turn them with chopsticks until they form a perfect ball. They’re covered in a Worcestershire-like sauce and mayo and sprinkled with bonito flakes.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Japanese desserts are something of an acquired taste. It’s a new world of textures and ingredients, but in our opinion, they strike the perfect balance of sweetness. Kyoto is known for its powdered green tea called matcha, and the dessert cafe Tsujiri Honten is one of the best places in the city to sample the sweets. Its parfait is the the mother of all Japanese desserts — combining green tea whipped cream, ice cream, matcha gelatin, red bean, and matcha cake. Yes.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We ran out of time to see the famous bamboo forest of Kyoto, but I wasn’t too scarred because we stumbled upon this little bamboo forest in one of the templates at night. The graphic patterns of nature at their best.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The Golden Pavilion Temple, or Kinkakuji, is a famous Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. It was originally built in 1393 as a villa for a successful statesman, Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga. After his death, the building was converted into a temple by his son. In 1950, it was burned down by a fanatical monk attempting suicide. The structure was built in 1955 and its top two stories were covered in pure gold leaf, even though it’s believed that the original owner only managed to cover the ceiling of the top third before he died. The golden structure pops in its densely forested setting, and appears to be floating on top of itself in the pond below.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
One of our favorite things we ate in Japan was the miso burnt ramen from Gogyo Kyoto. I’m not sure how they infuse such an enjoyable burnt taste into the broth, but after months of noodles across China and Japan, this was a standout.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We couldn’t leave without trying out the ultimate in streamlined lodging — sleeping in a tube, on a shelf, in a room a full of strangers. We highly recommend the hotel Nine Hours in Kyoto, for your own matrix-like hotel experience.
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