If you're thinking about your next travel destination, I would highly recommend Japan. John and I experienced a little bit of everything during our two-week trip. It was perfect mix of hanging out with friends, exploring sites, tasting delicious cuisine, and learning about Japan’s history and culture. I just really enjoyed the vibes. There was constant movement surrounding us, but it never felt hectic—everything seemed thoughtfully planned to maximize efficiency.

Since I've shifted back to more personal work, I've been wanting to focus on story-telling. And while I don't know if my images can truly do the trip justice, I hope you enjoy the beauty, culture, and lifestyle of Japan through my lens.

Getting on the Right Track

As luck (and John’s planning) would have it, our first week overlapped with our friends, Idabelle and Victor. We were fortunate to have Idabelle as a guide and translator, especially when it came to the public transportation system. That efficiency I mentioned largely revolves around Japan’s trains, subways, metro, and buses.

They all can be found at the same station at times; it's confusing at first, but there's an easy way to get anywhere once you got the hang of it. We spent a lot of time riding the trains, wandering around stations, and looking for the correct exits.

Getting lost in a massive station wasn't the worst thing in the world though. When I heard underground subway, I immediately thought dark, dirty, and smelly. That perspective shifted at the start of the trip. Some stations had a variety of restaurants, shops, and at times, entire malls in them. Of all the ones we journeyed through, Kyoto Station was by far my favorite.

We stayed at EPH Kyoto—a five minute walk away from Kyoto Station. One night after dinner, the four of us explored what it had to offer. Per Idabelle's suggestion, we first rode the escalators up to see the stairs with light show displays.

When we reached the top of the stairs, we crossed the skywalk to travel to the opposite side of the station. The stairs were pretty cool, but my favorite aspect of the station was how you got a complete unobstructed view of Kyoto Tower on one end and its reflection in the windows on the other.

I was glad we took the time to explore Kyoto Station. It was a perfect marriage between function and aesthetics; for a building that's purpose was to be a hub for efficient transportation, it somehow became a must see attraction. Learning Japan's public transportation in general was a highlight in itself—I would encourage everyone to embrace the initial struggles in order to travel efficiently for the rest of the trip. Pro-tip: Google Maps works great and is integrated with Japan's public transit.

Let nature take its course

If you came here looking for a travel guide, I'm sure you are disappointed so far. Rest assured though, there are plenty of spots to hit up that don't fall under the umbrella of train stations. We saw some amazing landscapes and architecture, some within minutes from the busy streets of the city. In Kyoto, we visited quite a few tourist spots. Visually, I think the Bamboo Forest was my favorite.

A landscape photographer I am not, but I do love playing around with angles and perspective. And my students would tell you, I'm all about those natural leading lines in a photograph.

John and I had discussed putting some abstract art up in our home before this trip. We never really followed through, but I saw an opportunity. John's favorite color is green, and the muted bamboos inspired me to create an abstract piece for him. Nothing fancy, just some intentional placement and camera shake. We might actually hang this up as a canvas.

There were also various temples and shrines in Kyoto—we ended up visiting three. The first one was Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. It wasn't my favorite experience, mostly because we walked along a crowded path shoulder to shoulder the entire time, but at least I was able to get some nice shots of the temple right before it rained.

There was a long line at the bus stop when we left, so we opted to walk instead. Walking over a mile back to the train station in the humid heat soured the overall experience a little as well.

Fushimi Inari Shrine (also known as the Torii Gates) was a little less crowded and just a short train ride from Kyoto Station. Once there, the hike itself is a trail up a mountain. We only ventured part way up and took a couple photos before turning around.

It's always nice traveling with my husband because while I'm snapping away, he's looking up the significance of what I am photographing. It worked out perfectly that Idabelle and Victor liked to be the subjects of my photos while John gave some backstory of the 10,000+ gates donated by companies and businesses.

The last temple the four of us visited was Kiyomizu-dera Temple. You had to walk uphill quite a bit to get there, but it was worth the view. We got an unobstructed view of Kyoto with Kyoto Tower as the centerpiece even without a telephoto lens.

Visiting the numerous castles in Japan was also on our nature to-do list, but the only one we ended up seeing was Osaka Castle. The walk leading up to Osaka Castle was beautifully lined with trees, so I couldn't help but go back to portrait photographer mode. Shoutout to Victor and Idabelle for indulging me in a mini portrait session.

When we finally got to Osaka Castle, I found it difficult to get variety of compositions of the castle itself. I was also very aware that most of my shots were looking like the featured photos on Travelocity.

After a few snaps of the architecture, I started focus on other details. Osaka Castle had a lot of ravens (at least I think they were ravens) perched throughout. One got close enough but was extremely backlit, so I immediately thought to underexpose for a silhouette. It ended up being by favorite shot from Osaka Castle.

I'm usually wary of the great outdoors, mostly because I'm allergic to all trees...and recently mosquito bites (each of these site visits required a pregame bathing of bug-spray), but I appreciated the different places we visited, touristy or not. If you are like me, I would encourage you to go with a John of your own so you can see the beauty and learn a little history at the same time.

Culture Shock

It was projected to be 85+ degrees and 60+ humidity on most days, so naturally I packed plenty of tank tops and shorts. I quickly noticed that I stuck out like a sore thumb on the streets. Most people wore loose dress shirts and pants, and here I was looking like I just came from the gym. Idabelle reassured me that it was okay: "you're a tourist."

I just don't like standing out, or worse, unintentionally disrespecting another culture. This thought was on my mind when we booked a kimono tea ceremony at Kyoto Maikoya.

After getting dressed in our kimonos (the men wore yukatas), we began the ceremony with our host, Mary, explaining the four principles of a traditional tea ceremony: harmony, respect, purity, tranquility. We then learned the three different bows along with the steps to mixing our matcha powder.

I wasn't overly impressed with the taste; I had always thought matcha tasted like grass and this time was no different, but still enjoyed the experience overall. The uneasiness came afterward. The plan was to get lunch and make the short walk to the market in our kimonos. Idabelle reminded me that wearing the kimonos in public was a sign of embracing Japan's culture rather than cultural appropriation.

We ended up changing back into our clothes because it was so hot that day. And considering how my feet were already sore from all the previous walking, it was the smart choice to walk through Nishiki Market in more comfortable shoes.

Nishiki Market is a long marketplace in downtown Kyoto, spanning about 400 meters. Whether it's alcohol, fresh fruit, or assorted meats, the market was filled with a variety of shops and large crowds. John opted to try the fresh fruit over the more eclectic choices.

We were a little more adventurous in Toyko when we went to the largest seafood market in the word: Tsukiji Fish Market. Its inner market is known for their tuna auction first thing in the morning and the outer market is a recommended place to visit for fresh seafood.

There were so many sushi places in the market with great prices, but since we got there around lunch time, everywhere had a huge line. Our backs were sore and feet were tired, so we opted to eat at a restaurant across the street, Sushi Iwa, instead. The prices were double compared to the sushi places inside the market, but at least quality was still amazing.

After lunch, we went back and truly explored what the Tsukiji Outer Market had to offer. While Nishiki Market was a narrow strip, Tsukiji Outer Market was more spread out. The crowds were just as thick, gathered around stalls that sold an assortment of seafood products and snacks.

John and I decided to try some fried fish cakes for our second lunch. There were a variety of flavor combinations (green onion, corn, mushroom) and fish types. We ended up getting some salmon and cheese balls along with an onion fish cake. Pictures of John eating said cheese balls next to the shop are not included because he wasn't exactly thrilled with a close up of his mouth wide open.

Another surprising observation I had during our trip was the cleanliness of the streets in Japan. Even in markets, where food was being sold left and right, there were no wrappers on the floor or trash piling up. I think most of this was due to the etiquette of eating in public.

You don't walk and eat on the streets. If you buy a snack from a shop, it is customary to eat by the shop and then continue on your journey after. Even in the dense crowds of a food market, no one was walking with food in their hands. And if you didn't know, there were plenty of signs around to remind you.

If you want to experience some of the local culture, I highly recommend doing a market run and being a little more adventurous than I was with trying the local snacks. Also, make sure to carry an extra bag for trash—public garbage bins were just as rare as litter on the streets.

Technology Meets Art

John had bookmarked many stops that featured what we both loved: cameras and watches. I never knew Japan had so many photography shops; when looking for the restroom at a brewery, we encountered is little store, 2nd Base, around the corner.

It was one of many camera shops we randomly stumbled upon. I didn't prepare enough to actually splurge on any pristine lenses or Leica cameras, but I did purchase some Polaroid SX-70 film for fun. The Nikon Museum in Minato City, however, was a planned trip. I've used Nikon cameras since I started photography in high school, so learning about how the lenses were created and just seeing the timeline of Nikon's camera lineage was super cool.

It was also nice to see John interested in one of my passions. His love for technology overlapped well in this museum with my love for art. While I spent more time in the theater watching the local Nikon artists' shorts, he soaked in the laser section. I didn't even know that Nikon manufactured lasers until this museum visit.

When we left the Nikon Museum, we headed straight to Ginza for the Seiko Museum. I don't really have an interest in watches, but I did enjoy learning about Seiko's founder, Kintaro Hattori. Dude never stopped working; never stopped innovating—and that mindset continued as he passed his company down to his children and grandchildren. John was equally happy just perusing all the different watches on display.

If cameras and watches aren't of interest, another museum that's a perfect mashup of art and technology was teamLab Planets Tokyo. The museum consisted of two sections: water and garden. Every exhibit was interactive and catered to stimulate the senses. I didn't get many photos of the experience since we were mostly busy...experiencing, but I did manage to get a cool shot of John in the LED light room.

It was a miracle that I got a photo without anyone else in the background. The room reflected everything, and there were tons of people. If you plan to check teamLabs out, I would book a reservation earlier in the day. The entire museum is a shoes-off experience; personally I would rather wade through water that fewer people had the opportunity to frolic in before me. Oh, and don't wear a skirt unless you have some cute underwear you want to show off (they do have shorts you can change into if needed); most of the floors are mirrors.

for the kid at heart

If you know me, you know that I am a total kid at heart. And Japan spoke to that kid. We visited several Pokemon Centers in Kyoto and Osaka with Idabelle and Victor, but John still surprised me on our first full day in Tokyo by taking me to the Pokemon Mega Center in Toshima City (it wasn't really a surprise since it was in our itinerary, but lucky for him I didn't read the itinerary he made).

I actually took zero pictures at the Mega Center because I was too busy scouring for bulbasaur swag. But here's one of the few John took of me throughout the entire trip.

Composition isn't bad; I taught him well. But back to the point...Pokemon Centers—make sure you hit up at least one if you are or ever were a Pokemon fan. And if you aren't, there's always the full-proof way to reach your inner child: amusement parks.

Universal Studios in Osaka is a two-train ride away from Kyoto. We woke up at 6am and went on our first day in Japan with Idabelle and Victor, jetlag be damned. Even though we got there before the park opened, there was a long line waiting for us. People were sprinting, yes sprinting…full steam ahead to get into Super Nintendo World. That was our goal as well, but we ended up getting an entrance ticket for 9:30, so we detoured to my favorite area of any Universal and sipped on some butterbeers while we waited.

I’ve always wanted to try out the interactive wands in Harry Potter World but seem to talk myself out of it in the end. This time was no different as I was pretty content with wandering around and photographing the awesome architecture. I know it's just a replica, but it felt like I was in Hogsmeade. The Hogwarts Castle was also a nice bonus.

When we finally got into Super Nintendo World, I immediately realized why they were limiting entry. It was packed. Mistakes were made when I decided to rock my 35mm lens for the day because I couldn’t get far enough away from people to even take a shot. I pretty much settled for taking photos of the scenery all day and left the selfies to the rest of the gang.

In Tokyo, we hit up DisneySea. John and I have been to Magic Kingdom and Epcot before, so this was a nice change in the Disney experience. This time, I stuck with my 24-70mm lens for more versatility. We decided to make DisneySea an evening excursion, getting there at 4pm and staying until closing. The park was beautiful at night.

John really enjoyed trying the different flavored popcorn at each section of the park—curry, butter and soy sauce, chocolate, matcha, and more, but my favorite part was getting on all the rides while everyone else was watching the night show. The coasters were fun (did not enjoy the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea though; it mimics being underwater in a submarine—too soon), and it was pretty special to have the carousel to ourselves.

John's not the biggest fan of amusement parks or Disney for that matter, so it was nice to see him enjoying DisneySea. But after both amusement park experiences, his favorite ride was still The Flying Dinosaur at Universal. Not surprisingly, it was my least favorite. I usually love rollercoasters, but that sucker was the Thanos of all rollercoasters. It was already ridiculously fast and yet someone thought it should accelerate randomly throughout; I couldn't even let out a scream because the force of the wind held my breath back. No thanks. I'll take a romantic carousel with my love any day.

Kan Pai

When traveling with John, there are two musts: good coffee and good alcohol. Dispersed in our itinerary were local coffee shops and bars near whatever activity or site we were visiting that day. We also have very different taste when it comes to beverages. I often joke about how I like my coffee just like I like John: hot, white, and sweet. My favorite was the blended banana espresso shake from Sorama Gallery + Coffee. John unsurprisingly got a cold brew and thought it was just okay.

His favorite coffee spot was The Roastery by Nozy Coffee. I'm pretty good at telling if John will like a coffee place or not as soon as we step in, and Nozy Coffee checked all the boxes. They had a variety of pour-over coffees and even had their in-house roasted bean assortment on display in the back.

I was still reminiscing about my banana espresso shake from earlier, so I decided to get some ice cream instead. John got an espresso shot that he claimed was one of the best he ever had. I took his word for it.

Our opposite tastes in coffee also trickles over to alcohol. Nine times out of ten, if there is a cocktail I really like, John would just tolerate it. And vice versa. I was surprised we both enjoyed the drinks from the first bar we went to: The Root of All Evil.

The Root of All Evil was located on the bottom floor in Kyoto Tower, and they're known for their variety of gin. We ordered six cocktails total. Neither of us really like gin, but we agreed everything we ordered was delicious. The attention to detail when preparing the drinks was more impressive than the drinks themselves. In the numerous bars we visited, John and I both noticed the bartenders were meticulous in their preparations.

My favorite of the trip was Bar Kingdom in Kyoto. There was no menu; we told the server what type of liquor and taste we liked, and they would whip something up. The drinks were great and the atmosphere was mellow—a great way to wind down after walking all day.

Bar Kingdom was on the pricier side, but it did feel like an upscale speakeasy rather than a dive bar. John loved it so much that he kept a couple business cards from the bathroom and photographed many of the details throughout our visit. He usually leaves that task to me.

If anyone wants names of the other specific coffee shops or bars we went to, feel free to hit me up. There were honestly so many and each had their unique quirks; John made sure to document them all. Kan pai (cheers)!

in good company

When the school year starts, my lesson plans are ready. In fact, I usually have the entire semester planned out by day. That's my mindset when it comes to work. But when it comes to leisure, I'm the opposite. I rather experience whatever the day throws at me and capture moments with the people I love. I was extremely blessed to be able to do just that with John. Just look at him...*insert heart emoji*

There were only a few times we wanted to kill each other on the trip. I know my inability to make a decision drives him crazy, but it evens out with his inability to read a sign when navigating. At the end of the day though, no one can make me laugh like this man. During our walk through Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, I had to use the restroom. John said he would wait in the shade. When I came out, I almost walked right past him.

He blended in with the locals so well with the umbrella that I couldn't help but laugh. He begrudgingly allowed me to take a picture. John does not like to be in photos (waste of my talent, I know), so I consider it a win when I get a great shot of him. When he finally requested a photo of himself on the trip, I was thrilled.

"Make me look like Godzilla." Sigh, not my finest work of art, but I think I nailed the prompt. The random finds were an unexpected bonus on the trip. We had several lucky instances—the miniature village replica just happened to be outside a Starbucks we stopped at, and when we got turned around looking for a ramen shop, we ended up stumbling upon the robot hotel, Henn-na.

Survey says: creepy. The point is though, getting lost and/or exploring the unexpected can result in some of the best moments. On our last day, the most unexpected thing happened: we ran into some friends from home, Nate and Tomomi.

I was not expecting to see anyone I knew 5,000+ miles away from the Bay Area! We coordinated to grab some yakiniku for dinner and searched for a bar to chill at after. The first couple of watering holes we looked up were pretty packed or about to close, so we eventually ended up at Yotsuya Bar. It was a tiny place manned by one bartender—we loved the vibes.

The company on this trip made the experience even more special, and ending it with Nate and Tomomi was icing on the cake. By the time we left the bar, it was already 1am—the trains stopped running at midnight. It was all good though...saved by Uber!

Enjoy the Little Things

Andy Warhol once said, "I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want." I was reminded of this quote as I looked through all my photos from trip. In the same space we use to build a single-family home for two in the Bay Area, there would be three restaurants, a bar, and two apartments—at the very least. Some of the best restaurants I ate at would fit into my kitchen.

Size was never an issue; Japan managed to uphold the highest quality in their products with little wasted effort and expense. From the simple-to-use packaging of snacks to the cleanliness in public bathrooms, systems are put in place to optimize everyday living.

I really appreciated the attention to detail toward the little things, and it allowed me to open my eyes to the bigger lifestyle differences around me. There were less cars on the street because it was easy and cost effective to travel by public transit. And with less cars, more people navigated through alleyways and narrows streets on their bicycles or scooters.

When it came to eating out, we had no bad experiences. The food was flavorful but properly portioned so we didn't leave feeling stuffed. And whether it's preparing food or drinks, dedication to the craft was reflected in both the taste and presentation.

So we've come back full circle: efficiency. The streets were bustling with locals and tourists; the underground was filled with folks carrying backpacks or briefcases, most likely heading to work. Everyone seemed focused on the their individual tasks ahead. It is the definition of chaos, yet the trip felt the complete opposite.

If it came down to it, I have no doubt that most would stop and help a tourist in need. The hospitality in Japan paralleled with the efficiency; it was amazing. Everyone we interacted with was so patient and kind. So thank you for putting up with this American tourist that fumbled through menus and took way too many photos of everything. I will visit again! Arigatōgozaimasu!