My 30 Before 30 Challenge

I have seen other people do a “thirty before thirty” challenge, with entries like “go skydiving”, “cook dinner for the family”, or “travel alone”. While these are all good ideas, and I have my own list of similar goals (e.g., “publish one of my novels” and “release a music track”), I’ve also been plagued with this feeling that I’ve seen so little of the world. I have never been to South America. I have never been to Africa. I have never been to the South Pacific. I have only been to a fraction of Europe, to the point that I can’t say I’ve really been there. (For instance, if one has only been to the tourist spots of Paris, has one really seen France? I’m inclined to answer “no”, though it’s definitely better than not going at all.)

I turn twenty-five this year, and I’m already feeling the quarter-life crisis creeping in. I know I’m almost expected to go back to the United States and live a “normal” life (whatever that means), but I also can’t deny that I feel the strongest and most capable when I am on the move. When I was in Guilin, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Inner Mongolia… it always felt like I was in my element, being out in the world and experiencing it.

As a result, I’ve decided to make a challenge for myself to travel to thirty countries before I turn 30 years old.

I wish I could say this was my original idea, but that would be a lie. I was inspired after reading an article from the travel blog The Sweetest Way, in which Leah Davis challenged herself to travel to thirty countries before she turned thirty. When she posted the article, she had just turned twenty-seven, so she had three years to complete her “thirty before thirty”. (Spoiler alert: she accomplished this goal a year later!)

Here’s the extra challenge I want to give myself: Leah included all the traveling she had done before she had set that challenge for herself. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I want to challenge myself to include only the traveling I do from this point on (with the exception of China, because I already live here and not including that would be ridiculous). I definitely would love to continue traveling and exploring, and hopefully I’ll be able to achieve this goal!

It’s a stormy day here in Cili, and as I’m typing this, I’m preparing for today’s classes. I hope to be back later this week with another article about a life update that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while. See you then! Zai jian!

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“It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves—in finding themselves.”
~ Andre Gide

Guilin: An Unexpected Journey

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are my own, and do not represent those of WorldTeach and its affiliates.

Last week was the week of the Tomb Sweeping Festival (Qingming Jie), so that meant that we get classes off while the students were observing the holiday. I had hoped to travel to Guilin for this holiday, but since we were told we only had three days off for the holiday, I decided it was not worth the stress to travel anywhere far away, and grudgingly decided to stay in Cili. With that in mind, one might easily understand why, after learning on Tuesday morning that I had no classes that day (effectively lengthening my holiday from three days to four), I decided to throw all my essentials into a backpack and travel to Guilin anyway for a last-minute vacation.

Spoiler alert: That decision was SO WORTH IT!

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The 20-yuan bill scenery

Guilin is in northern Guangxi Province, a province southwest of Hunan Province that shares a border with Vietnam. The mountains surrounding the Li River are featured on the 20 yuan bill, so it’s no surprise that’s considered a jewel of Chinese scenery. Another cohort went to a lake that looked almost identical to the one from Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life (for fellow Tomb Raider buffs, it’s the scene where Lara and Terry Sheridan enter China by pod and they crash it into the lake); I don’t think I was able to find it, but the scenery on the Li River and in Guilin still made me feel like we would turn a corner and see the Argonath (the giant statues of old kings) from Fellowship of the Ring.

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The view from the Li River on our way to Xingping from Guilin

Guilin is three and a half hours from Changsha by bullet train (gaotie). Little did I know when I booked my ticket at the station, that—ooh la la—I got the business class option (not what I expected, but I’m not complaining, since it was one of the last tickets available for that train; after my train ride in Inner Mongolia, I would have rather avoided a standing ticket). It definitely made the three and a half hours go by faster.

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The view from Laozhai Hill, Xingping

Based on photos and feedback from my cohorts that had already been to Guilin, I spent a lot of my time in Xingping (20 minutes by gaotie from Guilin to Yangshuo station, which is technically closer to Xingping than Yangshuo but that’s a separate issue). On a cohort’s suggestion, I stayed at This Old Place (老地方) International Youth Hostel in Guilin Tuesday evening, before heading over to Xingping on a river boat the next morning and staying at their sister hostel there. When I stayed in This Old Place in Guilin, the dorm rooms available were coed, which I have yet to feel comfortable with, so I went with a private room. The rooms I had in Guilin and Xingping were minimal, but clean and comfortable. They serve breakfast for 20 yuan (you have to order that one the night before), and they have really good English. This is not meant to be a review on This Old Place, but I would love to stay there again.

 

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View of the river near Tengjiao Nunnery
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View from the pier in Xingping

In Xingping, I visited the Tengjiao Nunnery with other hostel guests that I met, and I also hiked Laozhai Hill, where I was able to get beautiful pictures of the Li River scenery. I also met up with another cohort back in Guilin, and we were able to get some beautiful photos and have dinner before I went back to Cili Friday morning.

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Sun and Moon Pagodas in Guilin

I feel like I could have stayed a day or two more in Xingping to see everything I could, and an extra day or two in Guilin to fit in a day trip to the region’s famous rice terraces. Hopefully, I’ll be able to go back to Guilin, and I’ll be able to go to the spots I missed and be able to appreciate the scenery there more. Even though this trip was extremely last-minute, I’m really proud of myself for making the choice to go on an adventure!

We’re slowly starting to wrap up here in China; I’ll be going back to Changsha later this month for the end-of-service meeting with WorldTeach, and I’ll be preparing for my next adventure. What will that next adventure be? I plan for that to be my next article. See you then! Zai jian!

Lessons Learned From A Month On The Road

Today was my first day back in classes, and I’m glad to be back teaching in Cili. That said, I still have all the memories of being on the road for a month. I’m really proud of myself for packing for a month of traveling in a carry-on suitcase, and that I did all the things I did. From cheering on the Olympic Athletes from Russia’s (OAR’s) men’s hockey team in the Olympic finals at their hospitality house in Pyeongchang, to playing with elephants in Thailand, I can’t believe how fortunate I am to have these experiences. I wanted to wrap up my trip, as far as the blog is concerned, with some things I was grateful for, and some things that I would have done differently.

Things I’m grateful for on this trip:

  • I’m grateful I packed so lightly. A lot of traveling places focus on shopping opportunities, and while I understand that helps the tourist economy in those areas, that’s not a priority for me, and I’m grateful I had the self-restraint to avoid buying a ton of souvenirs. Plus, what with all the mass transit I took, I was so grateful I didn’t have a giant suitcase to lug onto planes and trains and buses. That said, I could probably have gotten away with packing a slightly larger suitcase since my bag started to get a bit stuffed when I got a few things like my Jiji mug and my harem pants.
  • I’m grateful everything went as smoothly as possible. Especially on transit days, I got super anxious (like when I feared I’d miss one or both of my flights to Chiang Mai), but I was just grateful it all worked out. In hindsight, I would rather have a longer layover than rush through a shorter layover and risk missing my flight, but I’m grateful it all worked out with the times I had.
  • I’m so glad I had local recommendations. My Airbnb host in Chiang Mai not only was really open with communication, but they also sat down with me my first day in Chiang Mai and gave me some awesome recommendations for places to go in the city! I stayed with a family friend in South Korea, and she and I had a lot of fun going to the places that she loved in Seoul. If I didn’t have these local recommendations, I would have been so clueless, and I feel like I wouldn’t have enjoyed my time as much as I could have.

Things I would do differently next time:

  • Maxi skirts are not a wise packing decision. As I described in my packing article, I packed two maxi skirts and rotated them rather regularly throughout the month. They did the job—they covered my body in a pretty manner, they provided ideal coverage in the Buddhist temples of Thailand, and I could wear leggings underneath them in Seoul and Japan. That said, they are not practical for travel. In the month I’ve traveled, not only did they take up more space in my bag than I would have liked, but also the hems of my skirts have gotten caught on the wheels of my suitcase, the decorative finials on an umbrella stand, the skull of a water buffalo (?) on display at a roadside market stand (luckily it didn’t break), the track of a moving escalator in Tokyo Station, and (are you ready for this?) the closure clasp of my backpack when I set it on the floor. In the future, much as I despise jeans, those or loose-fitting trousers like harem pants (which I ended up buying a pair of in Chiang Mai) might have been wiser options for being on the move so often.
  • I would have gritted my teeth about the weight and brought my laptop. While my iPad and phone were more than sufficient to do the things that mattered (e.g., check emails, update social media, post blog articles), it would have been nice to have my computer to back up photos (my phone’s storage capacity started to complain halfway through the trip). Plus, while doing blog articles on my iPad is possible, I’m so used to writing them on my computer that it was something of an adjustment process to work with my iPad. I will say, though, my iPad is much more portable than my kind-of-clunky laptop, so depending on priorities, which one to bring is a dice roll.
  • I would have brought a backup pair of glasses. My old glasses had a really bad tendency to fall off my face and onto the floor, but it would be while I was away from home for a month when they would break on impact. I have a backup pair in China, but I didn’t bring them with me, so I had to make an emergency trip to Zoff and get a new pair. A vision test, frames, and lenses cost me ¥9,000 plus tax (about US$90), which is a steal compared to how much glasses cost in the U.S., but it’s still ¥9,000. That said, I love my new glasses, but I could have avoided the emergency purchase and the stress of broken glasses if I had brought my backup pair (I’m nearsighted, so this might as well have been a non-negotiable purchase).
  • I would have paid extra for free checked bags on my flights. One thing that was acutely annoying with flying through AirAsia (I flew with them in and out of Thailand) is that they have a seven-kilogram weight limit for carry-on bags (for non-metric-system-using readers, seven kilograms is about fifteen pounds—the weight of an average school student’s backpack, if not lighter). Because my suitcase was 10kg (22 pounds, which I think is amazing, considering I was packing for an entire month), checking my suitcase from Tokyo to Bangkok to Chiang Mai set me back about $200. Grrrrrrr. (In my defense, I was not aware of this until after I purchased my non-refundable tickets.) The plus side is that I didn’t have to pick up my suitcase until I was in Chiang Mai, and I was able to put my in-flight essentials into a separate bag and put my bulky backpack in the overhead bin. I’m okay with no free meals or beverages (I normally fill up my reusable water bottle before my flight anyway and buy snacks), but no free checked bags, and a ridiculous (there, I said it) baggage weight limit on top of that? I have to draw the line somewhere.

Hopefully, I’ll have some more opportunities to travel and write some more articles for the blog before I return home for the summer! There are some plans in the works for a possible trip to Guilin in the next few months, so we’ll see if that works out! See you next time! Zai jian!

Random Thoughts: Traveling as an Introvert

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in Chiang Mai thus far, but I feel really bad to say I haven’t really done that much; the first full day I was here (yesterday), aside from going out to eat, I met with my Airbnb host for suggestions on where to go in the city, and I stayed in my place regrouping from my stressful travel day from Tokyo to Chiang Mai (I was worried at at least one point that I would miss both of my flights). I knew I had to do this after being nearly constantly on the move in Japan, and I think part of the reason is because I am an introvert. If you’re an introvert too, welcome and well met! :waves:

As far as the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator (MBTI) is concerned, I’m 50-50 INFP and INFJ, but I identify the most as an INFJ (Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Judging, you can find out more about all sixteen MBTI types here; all the photos I found on Pinterest). People who are INFJ are known for being a bit self-contradictory and frequently misunderstood. Based on my going-on-twenty-five-years’ experience, I can confirm the self-contradiction part; I am a full-on introvert, but if I don’t have social interaction for a period of time, I can get a bit stir-crazy. I would love to see so much and take in all the information I can about a place, but at the same time, sometimes I just want to hole up with a book in a café and read and/or people-watch.

Let me just make this clear: this is not meant to be a complaint against traveling. I love traveling, and I thoroughly appreciate the lessons I learn and experiences I have in each new place. I can’t deny, though, that it’s hard to recharge the energy I lose from being around people when I’m constantly on the move in buses, trains, planes, and in tourist locations—places where there are naturally tons and tons of people.

Much as I loved my time in Japan and other parts of the world, I have to admit that perhaps cities like Tokyo and Kyoto generally run at a faster pace than I do. There would be times over the past two weeks when I’d be exhausted by dinnertime just from being around so many people, and there’d be so much chaos that I’d often get slightly disorientated—metro hubs like Shinjuku and Tokyo were a huge culprit for this. Maybe that’s why I loved being out in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia so much back in October of last year; while I was traveling in a group, there was so much open space and so many things to do that we could conceivably split off and do our own thing if we needed or wanted to.

I know I had to take time to recharge yesterday, but I also feel extremely ungrateful for the time I have in another country when I spend time regrouping, especially after a particularly stressful transit day. I know based on previous experience, however, that if I’m on a tight schedule to see what I want to see, I am often required to push past my need to recharge to do more and more; I know when I do that, I become more and more stressed out, and my behavior towards others runs the risk of becoming less than ideal. That’s not a person I want to be, especially when I’m traveling by myself. I have prioritized my peace of mind on this trip, especially since this is my first time traveling solo for an extended period of time.

I am not a therapist or life coach, so I can only talk about my experience, but some things that work for me are:

  • Doing what it takes to replenish my energy, whether it be writing, listening to music, or sitting by myself with a coffee and people-watching (it doesn’t help that sitting and watching people makes me kind of feel like Aragorn at The Prancing Pony in The Fellowship of the Ring :giggles:)
  • Traveling in the off-season, traveling to less populated areas as opposed to major cities like Tokyo or Paris, or otherwise spending time alone in nature (I did this in Japan by spending time at a cat cafe in Harajuku)
  • Booking private rooms in hostels or on Airbnb, cost permitting, if you’re traveling solo
  • Attending workshops, classes, and tours in subjects that interest you, so if you do interact socially with the other students/attendees, you can have some common ground to talk about
  • Spending more time in one place to get a more thorough, relaxed experience of the destination (as opposed to bouncing around from place to place and rushing to see everything)

Hopefully these help if you are an introvert and love to travel. It is possible for us to go out into the world and take in all it has to offer, while still enjoying our downtime and solitude. Good luck, fellow introverts, and safe travels!

I’m looking forward to spending more time in Chiang Mai, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the more relaxed atmosphere compared to the hectic pace of Japan. Is there anything you want me to talk about during my time in Thailand? Please let me know in the comments below! Thank you so much for reading! Until next time, แล้วพบกันใหม่!

Six Lessons I Took From Japan: Final Thoughts

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my Airbnb in Chiang Mai, Thailand, adjusting to the new change of weather and getting ready for the next part of my trip. Since leaving Japan, I have thought about what I learned from my experiences there. My time in Japan reminded me to be present in the moment (like when I dressed as a maiko) and to enjoy the small things (like spotting the first cherry blossoms in Gion), and it reinforced my appreciation of the Japanese culture and cities with a strong public transit system. To wrap up my time in Tokyo and Kyoto as far as the blog is concerned, here are some lessons I took away about traveling in Japan.

  1. If you don’t speak Japanese, or need to use Google Maps while on the move, a pocket Wi-Fi will be your best friend! When I first got to Japan, there was a train accident that left me stranded near the airport at 23:00 (that’s 11:00PM, for those who don’t use military/European time; sorry but I’m so used to using it now), and honestly, if I didn’t have pocket Wi-Fi to find an alternative way into the city, I likely would have been crying. It was a great peace of mind to be able to access Google Translate or Google Maps (or any other navigation app of your choice), and I’m already missing the pocket Wi-Fi here in Chiang Mai. For words that I was trying to translate on menus, I also used the app Imiwa?, which works offline, so if you need to access a word or phrase on the go, that’s good as a backup (or if you don’t have pocket Wi-Fi)!
  2. Book your airfare with knowledge of your accommodations. I booked Airbnbs in the Shinagawa (Airbnb) and Nakano (Airbnb) areas of Tokyo. I had no problems with either Airbnb, but to get to and from Narita Airport, I had to cross through Tokyo to the other side of the city, which takes about two hours. I got into my Airbnb in Nakano around 1:00 in the morning, and I had to get up for my train from Shinagawa to Narita around 5:00 in the morning to get there on time for a 9:00 flight. It probably would have been wiser to book my departing flight out of Haneda Airport, which would have been closer to Shinagawa, but there we go, lesson learned.
  3. If you want to do museums or temples on a limited time schedule, PRI-OR-I-TIZE. At least in the off-season when I went to Japan, the temples and museums were open for such a narrow window of time (often 10:00-17:00, give or take) that getting around the city and getting to visit all the areas the cities had to offer was virtually impossible. Also, a lot of places were closed on Tuesdays or Wednesdays as opposed to being closed on weekends, so that was an added complication. Do your research ahead of time to figure out what you want to see and plan your days accordingly.
  4. Get a Japan Rail Pass, especially if you want to take the Shinkansen bullet trains and are going to more than one city. Obviously, if you’re staying in one city, this would not be necessary but since I stayed in Kyoto and Japan, this was a godsend. They’re a bit expensive up front, but given that a rail ticket from Kyoto to Tokyo is about $160-$180 each way, a $300 (give or take) seven-day JRail pass more than paid for itself in the time I was there. Also, being able to use the JRail pass on Tokyo JR lines was pretty sweet, and made it even more of a bargain, considering how quickly the costs of public transit add up. This leads me to my next lesson:
  5. When budgeting time and money for your trip, take public transit into account. Luckily, Japan has reliable public transportation, but they still can take a good half hour to an hour, depending on where you’re going and if you have to change routes. Plus, they do cost anywhere between ¥150 and ¥300 per ticket, depending on where you go (when I was in Kyoto, the bus was ¥230 flat-rate for an adult). From my experience in Tokyo, Uber and taxis are both insanely expensive, so if you’re on a budget, I would use them as an ultimate last resort (e.g., if you’re going out and the metro closes for the night before you can get home).
  6. Maxi skirts might not be the best idea if you’re going on a lot of escalators. I never got hurt, but there were a few close calls with the hem almost getting caught in the track. If they wore skirts, most women I saw in Japan wore knee-length or mid-calf-length skirts—never maxi skirts, possibly for that reason. That would probably be your safest option, if you prefer skirts over trousers or jeans.

What would you want to read about my time in Chiang Mai? Is there anything else you want to know about my time in Japan? Let me know in the comments below! Thank you so much for reading, and until next time, now that I’m in Thailand, I have to say “see you” in Thai—แล้วพบกันใหม่!

My Experience with Geisha Culture in Kyoto

It’s no secret that Kyoto is arguably well known (if not most well known) for being something of a geisha capital in Japan. Kyoto and geiko, at this point, seem to be inseparable; even ads for the city railways in Kyoto use geisha in them. In Japanese culture, geisha (literally, “arts person” in Japanese) are professional hostesses and entertainers, well-versed in manners, culture, and etiquette to make their customers relaxed at parties and events—unfortunately, Western misconceptions perpetuated with popular culture like the book and movie Memoirs of a Geisha have placed a different image on what geisha do and their role in Japanese culture. As a result, I have to wonder about my experience dressing up as a maiko (apprentice geisha) in Gion District, Kyoto.

Note: Geiko is another name for geisha that refers to a geisha in Kyoto (source); since I’m in Kyoto, I will be using geiko and geisha interchangeably. A maiko is an apprentice geisha that ascends the ranks for over five years before she becomes a geiko; there are distinct differences in appearance at each stage of being a maiko/geiko that are thoroughly explained in this article.

I am fully aware that I was not dressed as an authentic maiko (e.g., my collar was not right for being the level of maiko I was otherwise dressed as), and I realize that this is most likely by design. Because there are still working maiko and geiko, the companies that allow for these costume experiences have to be careful not to tarnish the real maiko and geiko‘s reputations, lest they risk getting shut down by the authorities (source). As a result, there were a significant amount of rules that I had to follow when I was in the full maiko regalia, like no eating (they never eat while working—likely also because they didn’t want to soil the kimono), no drinking (likely so as not to soil the kimono—also, I remember from watching a documentary on geisha that they don’t drink unless they’re offered drinks), and no smoking.

For this experience, I chose Kyoto MAICA for the price and the good reviews I saw online. They are nestled in a side street a short walk away from Keihan Railway’s Gion-Shijo station. They have different plans for photos and style options, starting at ¥6,500 (roughly US$65). They also have plans for guys to dress up as samurai! (For the record, this is not an ad for MAICA; this is just my experience.) I booked a reservation the day before, and I would highly recommend doing so, even if it’s not mandatory. One thing they told me to do was bring makeup remover, because you cannot leave the place with the makeup still on, and I did not see any makeup remover for guests to use (though I’m sure they had some in case people genuinely forgot to bring it). They asked for no photos during the process of hair, makeup, and dressing (in fact, they asked me to lock up my phone), so I only have photos of the finished result—sorry, y’all.

After I chose my photo plan, they asked me to select a kimono; I chose a rose pink kimono with a gradient to a soft golden taupe with flower detail, because I was nervous about wearing a more intricate pattern. They then showed me to a room with coin lockers for my clothes and bag, and asked me to put on a juban (the base layer of a kimono) and tabi socks before going into makeup. They then gave me a full face of makeup, including the white base makeup on my shoulders that left the nape of my neck bare (the nape of the neck is apparently an erogenous zone in Japanese culture, from what I remembered in my research), and then they put me into the kimono.

I imagined that wearing a kimono was likely an experience from what I saw on the Internet, but when they asked me if I needed the ladies’ before I got dressed, I then realized, “things are about to get real.” The maiko‘s obi is worn higher than a typical obi to mimic a more girlish figure, so it’s naturally going to constrict your ribs a bit (while I could breathe normally, I couldn’t help but think of Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean throughout this process), and a kimono‘s usual hemline trails behind you so that was something I had to be careful with (when we went outside, the ladies tied it up as you can see in the photos so the hem didn’t get wet). After the kimono was on, they asked me what kind of wig I wanted. Because my hair is auburn and short (even though I’m growing out my pixie), I went for a full wig, but they do offer partial wigs, depending on your plan.

After the workers made sure everything was perfect, we went downstairs to do the photo shoot. The professional photos you get with your plan are done indoors in a small studio area with screens and props like fans, a traditional tea ceremony display, and a parasol. My plan included going outside to take photos; it was raining that day, so we weren’t able to get a ton of photos outside, but I was still satisfied with the ones we got.

I ended up getting two professional photographs printed as well as tons of photos on my phone that came out really well. When we were done with photos, I was asked to wash off the makeup before I got back into my street clothes (one of the ladies working there helped me clean the makeup off my shoulders). They also had a room where the guests could reapply their usual makeup before they left, which I personally thought was a nice touch.

Final thoughts

If you want to dress up like a maiko or geiko and get good photos done, then this is perfect for you. That said, while I have no regrets about this experience, I do kind of wish that there was a more educational version of this for Japanese culture enthusiasts, or people who want to learn more about the maiko and geiko besides dressing like them. Because the maiko and geiko are renowned for their privacy and discretion, I’m not sure if “Life As A Geiko 101″ would be able to happen, but for Asian Studies majors like me, and other people who want to know more about their extensive training, etc., the makeup and costume are a good place to start, but might not be enough. As for me, I was worried that dressing like a maiko without learning more about their life was straddling the line between “culture enthusiast” and “stereotypical tourist”, especially in this day and age with our growing awareness of cultural appropriation. I will admit, though, that when I was in the kimono, I felt very feminine and graceful (minus my trepidation about the high-platformed shoes, especially with the state of my knees); with my research of Japanese culture, particularly that of the geiko and maiko, I hope to take with me their refined grace, poise, and appreciation of art and culture.

Tomorrow, I’m heading back to Tokyo for a few more days, so let me know what you want to read more of in the comments! Until next time, またね!

Themed Restaurants in Tokyo: A Food Diary

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are my own.

One of the things I love the most about going to Disney back in Florida is how they execute a theme from the moment you approach the ride to the moment you leave, and maybe that’s why I love the themed eateries in Japan so much. American themed restaurants seem to have a reputation for being famously mediocre if not cheesy, with the food, the decor, the entertainment/service, or a combination of all three. I have not seen that to be the case in Japan, at least in my experience. I wanted to write about my experience eating the food in Tokyo. (This will also include some special first-time foods for me, like conveyor belt sushi!)

One thing that you have to take into account, though, is that some eateries in Japan require the customers to order at least one food item and one drink, some charge a service fee (the ones I went to charged about JP¥500, or US$5), and some restrict the eating time to two hours. One drink, one entree, and a dessert or appetizer cost me ¥4,000 (about US$40), give or take a couple hundred yen, at each themed restaurant I went to, so this was a treat for me. I had seen video reviews of these restaurants by Emma from Tokidoki Traveller (Alice in Fantasy Book and Vampire Cafe) so I knew I wanted to go here; if you’re on a tighter budget, I would highly recommend doing your research and going to the one you like the most (for instance, if you’re like me and are not a huge seafood fan, the Ninja Restaurant in Akasaka might not be for you, as cool as the presentation and décor appear).

Shirohige’s Cream Puff Shop/Tolo Café and Bakery, Setagaya

As a Studio Ghibli fan since I was six years old, this was a dream come true for me. This one doesn’t have as stylized of a theme as the other themed restaurants I visited (e.g., servers did not wear costumes), but there were Totoro plushies and references to Studio Ghibli EVERYWHERE, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that it’s nicknamed the “Totoro Café”.

Okay, so technically, the cream puff shop (apparently run by the sister-in-law of Hayao Miyazaki) is on the first floor while the bakery and cafe are upstairs and run by a different group, but nevertheless, the cafe serves the cream puffs too.

From Shinjuku Station, I took the Metro to Setagaya-Daita on the Odakyu line, and it was a relatively straightforward walk from the station to the cream puff shop. At the end of the road, there’s a little Totoro on top of a nearby building that says “Well come [sic]” so you know you’ve wandered into Studio Ghibli territory.

One thing I didn’t realize is that the Totoro cream puffs have cute decorations depending on what flavor they are. Since I ordered the strawberry cream, my Totoro came with a little cherry blossom on his head. The result was the first food that has made me feel like a heartless monster to eat, since it was just too precious!

The shop also sells little cookies in the shape of natural patterns like mini Totoro, leaves, mushrooms, and acorns! I got a box of assorted cookies for just over ¥1000, you can also get cream puffs to go for ¥400 (according to the Tolo Café menu). I ended up spending just over ¥2000 total (about ¥1000 for a cream puff and a coffee, and just over ¥1000 for the cookies). If you can’t get to the Studio Ghibli museum (which I couldn’t; all the tickets for the entire month were sold out), this will likely be a great substitute. My childhood was so happy here, and when the lady at the counter (who I’m 70% confident was the aforementioned sister-in-law, but I didn’t bother her since the store was pretty busy) handed me the cookies, it almost felt like I was being handed the bundle of nuts and seeds Totoro gave Satsuki and Mei in the movie.

While we’re on the subject of Studio Ghibli: as I mentioned before in my article about Kiki’s Delivery Service (you can find the article here), I’ve been looking for a Jiji mug. I FINALLY FOUND ONE at a Donguri (Studio Ghibli merchandise) store in Skytree Solamachi! As I picked up the mug, I kid you not, my favorite song from Hayao Miyazaki’s movies (the end theme from Castle in the Sky, in case you’re interested) started playing over the loudspeaker. I saw that as a sign to buy it, along with a phone charm with the Laputa crystal from Castle in the Sky. They had a lot of merchandise for Studio Ponoc’s new movie Mary and the Witch’s Flower, as well as Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, but not that much for the other Studio Ghibli movies like Howl’s Moving Castle (my favorite after Kiki), which kinda stunk but I’m not complaining!

Alice in Fantasy Book, Shinjuku

One of my favorite Disney movies is Alice in Wonderland, particularly the Tim Burton version; lucky for me, Alice in Wonderland is apparently really popular here in Japan, so visiting this restaurant seemed to be a no-brainer. This is in the T-Wing building of Shinjuku, and this was an experience. I did not have a reservation (if anyone from Alice in Fantasy Book is reading this, I’m sorry!), so they went over the rules about the service fee and one food and one drink before asking me to sit and wait for Alice (I think now’s a good time to explain, as far as the guests are concerned, all the servers are apparently named “Alice”) before showing me to my table.

When my waitress told me I had to call “Alice” loudly if I needed her, that kind of threw me off; I personally hate yelling, even if they expect it, and I kind of wish that they had a different system for people that don’t like yelling, or are nonverbal. I was thinking of something like the Vampire Café’s bell or like the “Run Forrest Run” license plates at Bubba Gump Shrimp, but with card suits or the white rose and the red rose—Diamond Dining (the company that owns both the Alice in Fantasy Book restaurant and the Vampire Café) is making good use of their imagination in executing the Alice in Wonderland theme so far, so I have full confidence they can come up with a good alternative to “go ask Alice” (yes, reference to the song intended). I kind of cheated and called for her at a normal volume when she was done introducing herself to a group that was seated nearby.

Needless to say, these restaurants are geared towards people who come in large groups, possibly for special occasions (quite a few groups were celebrating birthdays). Alice ushered me to a small table that would have been hidden to people who were walking in. (A similar instance happened in the Vampire Café, so it wasn’t an isolated incident.) I had a nice view but it did feel like I was being somewhat partitioned off from the other guests. I’m not sure if this was a foreigner thing, an eating by myself thing, or a this-is-the-only-table-that’s-suitable-for-one-person thing, but I didn’t mind; I imagine this is something I as a solo traveler have to get used to.

In terms of what I ordered, I ordered the Beef and Guinness pie with broccoli, carrots, and beef, the fries with cheese sauce (served in a teacup because why on earth not), and a seasonal (non-alcoholic) strawberry drink that gave me a Cheshire smile. I was also served a standard (if I remember correctly, it was complimentary, at least in this place) appetizer: a cracker with a heart shape in it and a cup of what I believe was a corn-based hot drink (this was obviously a reference to the “drink me” potion and the “eat me” cake). After I paid for my food, I was given a packet of strawberry tea as a sort of party favor; I guess it was to keep the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party theme going all the way to the end.

Final verdict: the food was pretty good, presentation was off the chart, but I could have done without the Disney songs being played (maybe cute instrumentals instead would have been nice). Given that Alice is so popular in Japan, that might explain why they went balls-to-the-wall with the theme.

Bonus #1: Gansozushi, Akihabara

There really is no special reason for why I chose Ganso; I just Googled “best keitenzushi [conveyor-belt sushi]” where I was in Akihabara, and Ganso came up, so I headed over there to try Japanese sushi for the first time. I had tried sushi and sashimi in America, with disastrous results, so I decided to give sushi another try in Japan, and even though I’m not quite sure if I like sushi just yet, I’m glad I ate here.

A very basic description of the way keitenzushi works: I sat at a diner-like bar counter that had a conveyor belt with plates of sushi going around on it (keitenzushi is often translated as “sushi-go-round” on signs). You take the plates from the conveyor belt and eat as much as you want. Each plate design shows how much it costs, so you keep the plates in a stack, and then you pay based on your stack of plates. I was able to have some kind of salmon nigiri (a type of sushi with raw fish on rice), an egg (tamago) sushi, and a tuna wasabi nigiri (it was then that I learned I do not like the taste of wasabi… I kind of liked the pickled ginger, though). I ended up having four plates for around ¥1,000 ($10 USD), which I find to be a decent price, considering the location in downtown Tokyo and the amount of food.

Final verdict: It was much better than I thought it would be, but I still feel like sushi might not be my thing just yet.

Bonus #2: Kin-No-Torikara, Shibuya

Once again, this particular suggestion was from Google, but the original idea was from word-of-mouth; I heard from a friend who had been to Japan that fried chicken almost anywhere in Japan was really good. Kin-No-Torikara is a takeaway stand at a shopping center in Shibuya, and I ordered fried chicken and loaded fries. I loved experimenting with all the sauces; my personal favorite (the red-tinted one on the left in the photo) tasted like a sweet chili sauce—for those of you who are familiar with the American fast food chain Popeye’s, it tasted almost like the Sweet Heat sauce. For about ¥500, I got a decent amount of food (but then again, I get stuffed with a small amount of food, so keep that in mind).

Final verdict: If you’re looking for good fried chicken in Shibuya, you might want to check this place out. That said, they do not have a place to sit and eat, so be prepared to walk and eat or awkwardly stand around their waste bin like I did.

Vampire Café, Ginza

Moving to the dark side of the themed restaurant spectrum, my second night in Tokyo, I headed over to the Vampire Café in Ginza. This was in a building that had a lot of different restaurants—one on each floor (I didn’t catch the building’s name, since I was following Google Maps). For a Monday evening in Ginza, it was rather empty (again, no reservation… don’t do what I did, kids).

As far as decor goes, I say this in the most loving way possible: they clearly designed this with Mundanes (to borrow a term for “normal people” from the City of Bones series) in mind—red blood cell pattern on the light-up floor in the entrance hall, cobwebs, black and red textiles, blood, skulls, coffins, spiders, and bats. Everywhere. The decor was a bit too hardcore for my taste, even with my appreciation of the Goth subculture, but I will caveat that the red rose theme in the food presentation really spoke to my soul. So, if you’re at least somewhat familiar with the vampire or Goth subculture, be prepared for at least a small degree of eye-rolling.

They call the Vampire Café a “café” but it’s more of a restaurant. The same rules applied as in Alice in Fantasy Book—one food, one drink, ¥500 service charge—as the server explained the notice on the menu’s front page. One of the things I noticed in some of the reviews was that the staff were allegedly cold and not very accommodating. That was not my experience at the Vampire Café, but I did notice they were rather hands-off. The sentiment I think they were trying to go for with their vampiric characters was “we’re trying to be polite enough not to drive you off, but we’re trying very hard not to bite you so we’ll keep our distance”, so I can kind of understand that that’s not what some people have in mind for good service. I had no issues with my service, and I think the glaring issue was the language barrier, but that was nothing Google Translate couldn’t fix (like when I asked if I paid at the entrance or at the table). To call the server, you ring a bell, which is loud enough to hear in the relatively quiet place (barring the music), so I’m really grateful I didn’t have to yell.

This is a personal preference for me, but I like to be able to look around the venue, especially if there’s a loft area or a top floor to look out on the street below (I think in a past life I was a ranger like Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, or possibly a bird of prey). In the Vampire Café, they had red curtains around the booths so I couldn’t see around the place. I imagine with a group of people that would make everything seem a bit more cozy and intimate, but by myself, it kind of felt like a warm and plushy form of solitary confinement. That said, if they were trying to get you feeling “whoa what was that” when the dark shadows of the all-black-clad staff walk past the gap in the curtains for a split second, they definitely hit that nail on the head. I heard a lot of nervous giggling from other patrons, but even if it was meant to be scary, the mystery just intrigued me more; I can’t deny the sartorial choices and overall aesthetics of the staff were a part of it (*shy blush*).

In terms of what I ordered, I got a non-alcoholic drink called the “Elizabeth Bathory”, the red-wine-stewed beef cheek (which was actually really good; it had a texture similar to that of pulled pork), and a strawberry-matcha ice cream dessert in the shape of a spider (I will admit, the spider was kind of cute with the big eyes, and I almost laughed out loud when I read that the spider ice cream was ¥666).

While the restaurant does have a good amount of English on their menu (though their seasonal specials card did not have any English—consider yourself warned), I used the website MyOrder to check the menu before I came to Japan, and they claimed the drink was blood orange, cranberry, and pomegranate juice with tonic water. Also, according to MyOrder, the beef cheek was called “the dead body of Van Helsing”; people who know me outside of the blog may understand why I found this hilarious (I had to flip a coin between the beef and a pizza shaped like a letter with a rose “wax seal”—the beef won). Be advised: the website seems to have not updated the menu in a while, so they might not have all the items you’re looking for when you eat at the restaurant.

Final verdict: Food was actually really good, design was a bit hardcore but I’m not complaining, and the style of service might not be for everyone. Also, if you don’t like enclosed dark spaces or sudden noises when the server opens and closes the curtains (they weren’t too startling for me, but I imagine that could get to some people), this might not be the place for you. For me, I’m highly tempted to go back before I leave Japan to get the rose-letter pizza that didn’t end up on my plate—after making a reservation, of course.

Final Thoughts

My experience with the themed cafes in Tokyo was really good, but I also noticed that they are either really cute and light and fun (case in point: Alice in Fantasy Book, or what I’ve seen of the maid cafes in Akihabara) or dark and creepy (e.g., Vampire Café and the prison-, ghost-, or ninja-themed restaurants I’ve seen on YouTube) with hardly anything in between. I imagine this either-or feeling is more apparent to me because I notice this in America as well as with my experience shopping in Japan; while I understand the ambience and the feelings you get at these eateries are meant to be temporary, like a sort of escapism, as someone whose interests are divided between both sides of the dark-cute spectrum, it was a bit annoying to have to choose. If they had a Phantom of the Opera café, or a Brothers Grimm-themed restaurant? I’d be on the phone booking a reservation in a heartbeat. (Ya hear that, Diamond Dining?)

What else would you want to know about my time in Tokyo? Let me know in the comments below! I still have a few more days in Kyoto, so until next time, またね!

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