Brazil: Beyond the Carnival (Retrospective) by Christopher Hunter

At this point, my retrospective on Brazil has been nearly two years in the making. While it is true that I haven’t put words to digital paper until this moment, the past twenty-two months have been a constant reshuffling of the deck of memories and experiences my brief visit to Sao Paulo left me with. How do I, a white American male from the Midwest, possibly contribute anything worthwhile to the complex and nuanced conversation surrounding one of the most polarizing countries on the planet? How does anyone who grew up coddled in the safe confines of Ohioan suburbia begin to peel back the layers of desperation, pride, crime, hospitality, corruption, beauty, despair and hope of a place such as this? I don’t think I have an answer to those questions. I visited for work. I was an outsider, primarily there for particularly non-journalistic reasons. But while I was there, I made it my mission to extend my stay, to throw myself into the depths of Sao Paulo on my own and take in what the city offered me. In the months that followed, I found myself recalling specific moments of my adventure in new contexts, realizing that perhaps Brazil left a more influential and permanent mark on my life than I could have ever realized back in early 2015.

Sao Paulo from the air

Sao Paulo from the air

My overnight flight landed in Guarulhos, the massive international airport two hours outside of Sao Paulo known to English speakers as GRU, and to the locals as Cumbica. Right away, as I stepped out of the jetway, blinking into the bright sunshine of the terminal, there were signs of contradiction. Outside the windows in front of me, across the tarmac, sat the airport’s newest terminal. It was supposed to be a beacon of modernity and prosperity to welcome fans to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and yet here it lay unfinished, six and a half months after the tournament concluded. A colleague of mine, a local to the area, filled me in on the details. Apparently financial misappropriations, bureaucratic red tape, and construction delays resulted in an embarrassment felt by the people in deep and profound ways. Hope and good intentions, thwarted by nearly omnipresent incompetence; this was their government at work.

FIRST, THE SUBURBS: SAO JOSE DOS CAMPOS

The beginning of my journey took me two hours overland by secure transport to the city of Sao Jose dos Campos, located about a fifth of the way from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. The city is the seat of industry and technology in the region, home to a large military presence and aerospace and IT companies. There is shopping, nice housing, and amazing food. A friend of mine, another Brazilian from the area, eagerly gave me a list of places to eat and drink in the vicinity. But there is also poverty. His to-do list came with an ominous warning, to take cabs everywhere, and to never walk alone, even during the day. His other piece of advice was to bring every detail of your destination with you in writing. The language barrier here is severe, and aside from your five-star hotel service, you're quite unlikely to find anyone in Brazil that speaks English.

The Brazilian countryside between GRU and Sao Jose de Campos

The Brazilian countryside between GRU and Sao Jose de Campos

Into the heart of darkness

Into the heart of darkness

I'll keep my rambling about the Sao Paulo suburb to just the cliffnotes, but my time in the city was an interesting glimpse into middle class life in Brazil. We were with locals, who know the area intimately, and we were allowed the opportunity to experience the city as they do. One night in particular stood out. We decided to gather for an after work function at a nearby go-kart track. The premises functioned as part barbecue joint, part go-kart track, and part Ayrton Senna memorial. Senna, the lightning-rod legend of Formula 1 fame before his life was tragically cut short in an accident at the notoriously dangerous Imola circuit in Italy, was revered in Brazil for his prowess on the track and his boundless generosity towards his fellow Brazilians. His state funeral was attended by an estimated three million people, many of which benefited directly from his philanthropy.

Sao Jose de Campos

Sao Jose de Campos

As I downed my plate of chicken hearts and my fifth or sixth cachaca of the afternoon, I was dragged to my kart by the owner of the establishment, eager to get a race underway. No helmet, no seatbelt, no sobriety. The track was spartan, with tires serving as barriers between you and the driver on the otherside of the hairpin. But no matter, as we spent the evening taking laps at speed, our karts whizzing by the poster of Ayrton Senna by the front gate. As the sun set over Sao Jose dos Campos, a storm crept in, one severe enough to shut down any other track I've been to before, but we raced on. Lightning cracked overhead as rain fell onto the already slick track, our karts' backends sliding out on each turn, a result of slippery conditions and an even slipperier bartender.

AND FINALLY, THE BIG CITY: SAO PAULO

A few days later I was in the heart of Sao Paulo. The term "concrete jungle" is commonly used to describe a number of massive cities around the world, but I'm unsure if any of them are as fitting for the name as this one. As seen from the sky, there is no central district of skyscrapers. The mass of steel and concrete simply stretches on infinitely, a monotonous sprawl of human habitation.  In lieu of a towering downtown, there is the absence of one. Surrounded by countless twenty to thirty story buildings, in the middle there is what can only be described as a bowl of lush green; Jardims. This was where my hotel was located, the towering Renaissance Sao Paulo. It is home to the wealthiest individuals in all of Latin and South America. It is also a symbol of much of what is going wrong in Brazil. The staggering income disparity here was on full display, as giant concrete walls topped with electrified barbed wire separated the extravagant homes from the less fortunate. As I walked down Avenida Paulista, the economic center of the region, the inequality became even more apparent. I walked cloaked in the shadows of radio antennae towards MASP, the preeminent art museum of Brazil. The city morphed and swirled block by block, each street a glimpse into the struggles and triumphs of the Brazilian people. One block housed a street market, set back in a park where families walked and the homeless slept. Another held an intense protest, my minuscule understanding of Portuguese able to determine that it was a demonstration against a corrupt government official, with the leader screaming animatedly into a megaphone and the crowd reacting in kind. Yet another street held a festive party for Carnival, the road blocked off with dancers and as I snapped a few pictures, one such reveler handed me a cold beer, gave me a hug, and continued on clapping and singing into the crowd.

Avenida Paulista

Avenida Paulista

A cocktail with a view. The lounge at the Renaissance Sao Paulo

A cocktail with a view. The lounge at the Renaissance Sao Paulo

Carnival street parties...

Carnival street parties...

Upon arriving at MASP, I was faced with the most evident example of the chasm that exists here between the “haves” and “have-nots.” MASP is a stunning structure of glass and concrete, supported above the earth below it by two massive red beams. The galleries inside house priceless artifacts from Brazil's history and thousands of examples of European art. What sits below the museum, however, can only be describes as a city for the homeless. In the thousands of square feet sitting precariously below the museum is a cluster of mats, pillows and blankets accompanied by a stench of urine and alcohol. The locals walking by turned a blind eye to the forgotten population, eager I'm sure to continue their plans uninterrupted. But for an outsider like me, the juxtaposition of the cardboard village under this iconic example of Brazilian brutalist architecture housing priceless art painted an uneasy picture of the country's precarious situation.

MASP as seen from Ave Paulista

MASP as seen from Ave Paulista

It is not all doom and gloom, however, as there is an astounding amount of things to do, eat, and drink in Sao Paulo. The Municipal Market, in the aptly named Mercado neighborhood, is a gorgeous building with dozens of stained glass windows and food from around the world, brought to its floors by the world's numerous diaspora living here. Back in Jardims, there is a foodie culture that has exploded onto the world scene with force, with many excellent examples of international cuisine, the most surprising of which to me was their mastery, of all things, pizza. In the center of the "bowl" is the Hotel Unique, and as the name suggests, it is worth a visit, if only to sit at the rooftop pool bar, sip a caipirinha and take in the views. There are parks, there is theater and there is shopping. The city of thirteen million people is as modern and as cosmopolitan as anything you'd find anywhere else. And due to the time of year of my visit, I got to take a taxi in torrential rain through some dodgy neighborhoods to the Sambadome, the bastion of jovial dance and color that celebrates the beginning of Lent, Carnival. With no employees at the ticket gate speaking English, I was lucky to find a group who could partially understand me, and what followed next was a whirlwind of booze, food and dance. Arriving back at my hotel that night in one piece, the room spun around my bed as I slowly began to realize how lucky I was to successfully find my way home through the concrete labyrinth.

Stained glass of the Municipal Market

Stained glass of the Municipal Market

Second floor eateries at the Municipal Market

Second floor eateries at the Municipal Market

Rooftop pool and bar at the Hotel Unique

Rooftop pool and bar at the Hotel Unique

Municipal Theatre of Sao Paulo

Municipal Theatre of Sao Paulo

Perhaps the phrase that best describes my visit to Sao Paulo is an optimistic frustration. The countryside is a beautifully rolling landscape of lush, green hills. The people are warm, beautiful, enthusiastic, and proud. They welcome everyone, of all colors and sizes, to their party and are eager to show off the best their city has to offer. The city of Sao Paulo is one of an urban-dweller's dream. It stretches on forever, countless blocks of gastronomic and retail therapy ready and waiting for the wallets of its visitors. But as I rode in my hired car back to the airport, I was abruptly reminded of one of Brazil's most egregious flaws. We had been driving for a half an hour in the rain, still deep in the somewhat seedy bowels of the city, and I was checking my email when I heard a tap on the glass. As quickly as the tap registered in my brain and I started to look up, the driver stepped on the gas and blew us through the light, and as I glanced back at the two motorcyclists still sitting at the intersection in their helmets, the driver said in broken English, “just in case, I didn't want to take any chances.” I was made aware in a sobering instant that Brazil has yet to break through to the forefront of tourist destinations for one major reason, one that has many causes and no clear solution; personal safety.

Street level in Sao Paulo

Street level in Sao Paulo

Some examples of the culturally acceptable graffiti along one of Sao Paulo's many highways

Some examples of the culturally acceptable graffiti along one of Sao Paulo's many highways

A splash of color

A splash of color

This last year, as the Olympics of 2016 in Rio were met with optimism, then fear, and ultimately disappointment, it was made clear to the world that Brazil is still struggling under the weight of its own decisions and economic disparity. Infrastructure problems, corruption, and crime is too much to overcome for most people when they are building their international itineraries.  And while it's a shame that many travelers will never experience this unique and beautiful country, I can't say that I can really blame them. Brazil can be a difficult country. Add to the reputation of danger a long flight and an aggressive language barrier, it seems easier to look elsewhere for the time being. Many other places in South America offer safer and more accessible destinations, Buenos Aires and Santiago jumping to mind. But for those adventurous ones willing to take a chance, there is a lifetime of wonderful rewards to uncover in Brazil. And, if you're lucky like me, and countless other visitors to Sao Paulo, you'll emerge on the other side unscathed, and most importantly, forever changed for the better.

- C

Sao Paulo from the Renaissance Hotel

Sao Paulo from the Renaissance Hotel

The Old and New of Japan, pt. 2: Kyoto by Christopher Hunter

It is a little after sunset and a day of rain has given way to a calm, balmy evening, the puddles on the cobblestone streets reflecting red and green lanterns the only remanence of the day’s earlier deluge. I’m only one block away from a bustling street full of taxis and buses, yet you wouldn’t know it as a respectful hush hangs in the air. The only exception to the silence comes from a nearby group of tourists and photographers clamoring around a stopped taxi. Highlighted in the flashes of camera phones, a geisha gracefully steps out of the car's backseat, the door held open by her escort. She is dressed in traditional kimono, excellent examples of which can cost well-heeled travelers tens of thousands of dollars to take home, and she has on a face of perfect, pearl-white make up. With an umbrella held over her, she subtly but silently smiles and nods to the crowd, before being lead behind the curtain of an unassuming entryway, leaving the crowd to chatter and speculate about what they just saw. The intrigue and mystery lingers long after the taxi pulls away. The whole event took perhaps three minutes, creating more questions than answers, and yet this is why people travel thousands of miles to this spot in Japan. This is Kyoto. Hundreds of miles away from the neon sprawl of Tokyo, this is what comes to mind when the world thinks about traditional Japan. Some of it actually is, some of it is theater, but all of it is beautiful.

Rain in the streets of the Gion district

Rain in the streets of the Gion district

I glance around the still rain-soaked street, taking in the stunning architecture within which secretive and prohibitively expensive tea ceremonies take place, in meticulous detail, over the course of hours. The crowd of tourists disperses a bit.  A few meander to the signs outside of the restaurants scattered throughout the tea houses and theaters, small establishments that serve outstanding multi-course Japanese meals in this most traditional of settings.  Of the few that stumble upon a menu they can understand, most balk at the prices. Alongside them, groups of teenage girls walk awkwardly in wooden sandals. They’re dressed in kimono in a rainbow of gorgeous color, posing for pictures and laughing, their hair and make-up done with a touch of professional perfection. Throughout Kyoto, young women can play make believe, with studios dressing them up in ceremonial wear and accessories, complete with make-up and their choice of hairstyle. Then, for the rest of the day, they can walk the hallowed streets of Gion like celebrities, returning their kimono in the morning through their hotel concierge.

Young teenagers living out the geisha fantasy, and experiencing minor celebrity, in Gion

Young teenagers living out the geisha fantasy, and experiencing minor celebrity, in Gion

Kimono-clad at Fushimi Inari-taisha

Kimono-clad at Fushimi Inari-taisha

That’s the interesting part of Kyoto. The city has a reputation for being the hub of secretive and ancient Japanese traditions, and in some ways it still is that, with its expensive tea ceremonies and exclusive restaurant scene. But simultaneously, the city of almost 1.5 million people sees some 50 million tourists walk its streets every year. Among the temples and shrines, there is an ultramodern glass train station in the center of town, one of the best in the world. Blocks away from the wood-framed streets of the Gion district are ultra luxurious five-star hotels and riverside restaurants experimenting with cosmopolitan fusion menus. Sharing the same streets as geisha are employees of Nintendo and a world-class mass transit system.

Kyoto has become such a tourist hotspot that it was a hard adjustment for me coming from the megacities of Tokyo and Osaka. Tokyo, so massive and dense, is an easy place for a tourist to disappear into the pulse of the city. At some truly wonderful places, we were the only western faces to be seen. Osaka, especially outside of bustling Dotonbori, is a city that typically falls off of most tourists’ itineraries, and we felt even more assimilated there than in Tokyo, content to follow the gracious lead of its locals. In either case, there was a wonderful sense of anonymity that came from being an insignificant fish in some very, very large oceans. In contrast, Kyoto is like Times Square. I don’t mean that to sound like everything in Kyoto is artificial or superficial, because that would be an egregious lie. But I couldn’t help but notice the sudden influx of western and Chinese tourists in our hotel in Kyoto. We were no longer those lone fish, free to explore a large and alien ecosystem, but part of what felt like an invasive species of locusts descending upon a small and treasured forest.

Food stalls just outside in Kyoto

Food stalls just outside in Kyoto

The legendary Hyatt Regency Kyoto, once the big name in town. It is now seeing competition from the Ritz-Carlton down the street.

The legendary Hyatt Regency Kyoto, once the big name in town. It is now seeing competition from the Ritz-Carlton down the street.

Part of the issue is that there is a lot to do in Kyoto. Gion district, the seat of tradition and a protected exhibit of Japanese customs, is one of the biggest international draws. Equally alluring are the Torii gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha, thousands of fire-orange structures that serve as good luck for Japanese businesses, an offering to the patron of business and merchants, Inari, also the Shinto god of rice. (Walking through the gates, set in the forested foothills of a mountain, you should keep moving uphill as the crowds dissipate the farther up you go.) There are also the Golden and Silver temples, Buddhist structures of staggering beauty and breathtaking backdrops, and thousands of other shrines and temples that are scattered throughout the city, each one worthy of a lifetime of study.

A short subway ride west from the city center is the area of Arashiyama. Its epicenter is the Hozu River and it has two of my favorite sites in Kyoto, as well as being a beautiful town to explore in its own right. You can rent a bike (electronically boosted bikes are great if you've had a few too many balls of fried octopus) and get to all of these sites under your own power (or with the help of a battery.) First up is the bamboo forest of Arashiyama. You’ve undoubtedly seen pictures of this magical place in all of the tourist books, but it’s worth the visit. For the photographers out there, the quality of light here has no equal. (One protip: there is a bamboo forest near the Torii gates at Fushimi Inari-taisha, arguably more beautiful and it's less crowded.) Then it is on to the monkey park. Nestled high up in the hills, the sanctuary provides a breathtaking view over all of Kyoto, framed by emerald green mountains. Oh, and there are monkeys. Lots of them. They are wild, and even though they’re protected by the sanctuary, they are allowed to roam freely around visitors. Behind the only fenced area you can feed them from bags of apples or peanuts, and interact with the Japanese macaques personally. It’s a humbling experience watching these intelligent animals standing watch over the gorgeous Kyoto skyline, but be warned, the hike up can be demanding. Afterwards, take your bike, aim it in any direction, and just ride along the river, exploring local neighborhoods and street corner cafes until you’re ready to head back into town. My fondest memory of Kyoto is pulling my bike up to a fence along the river, taking a seat on a bench, and watching the sun start to set over the mountains as the town’s lights began to burn to life. If this is what local life in the area is like, I'm in.

The Torii gates

The Torii gates

Bamboo forest in Kyoto

Bamboo forest in Kyoto

Baby Japanese macaque snacking at Arashiyama

Baby Japanese macaque snacking at Arashiyama

When it’s time for dinner, and the thought of spending $150 USD or more a head for a traditional Japanese meal makes your wallet squirm, head back to Kyoto and the riverfront downtown. Settled along the banks is a row of stilted restaurants, each with a patio overlooking the river and its own set of string lights overhead. The food along the promenade varies in cuisine and quality, but the experience is tough to match. You’ll pay extra for a seat on the patio, but they tell you up front, and it’s worth it. (I’m being intentionally vague on food here, unlike my last two articles, mostly because each person visiting Kyoto will have their own gastric desires. The traditional meals are excellent, although expensive, and their chefs pride themselves on using simple ingredients of unparalleled quality and presentation. Some dishes only use a single one. These are experiences of a lifetime, but they’re not for everyone, or for every budget.)

Riverfront in Kyoto

Riverfront in Kyoto

After a day of incomparably iconic Japanese culture, you will return to your hotel or your ryokan and settle in for the evening. If you’ve already been to Osaka and/or Tokyo, the night will seem still, quietly serene and almost surreal. There is less neon, less noise, fewer people. This is your break from it all. You’ve earned this. But then, just as you’re about to fall asleep to dreams of monkeys and mountains, you’ll hear the cacophony of tourists spilling out of the elevator, eagerly chattering about their encounter with the geisha in Gion, laughing loudly before slamming their hotel doors shut to drift off to their own dreams of monkeys and mountains. You'll be left awake and dreading the morning, when you’ll have to see those same obnoxious tourists, dressed in Hard Rock Café t-shirts and tube socks with sandals, down at breakfast.

- C

Looking out over the main street of Kyoto from one of the shrines near Gion

Looking out over the main street of Kyoto from one of the shrines near Gion

The Old and New of Japan, pt. 1: Osaka by Christopher Hunter

If Tokyo is an introductory lesson on Japan of massively grand scale, perhaps nothing better exemplifies the duality of Japanese culture than the sister cities of Osaka and Kyoto. Being only thirty minutes apart by train, visitors to Japan often gloss over Osaka in pursuit of what many believe to be a more traditional destination. Kyoto is famous for its picturesque fire-orange Torii gates and kimono-clad geisha, and rightfully so. The city is a stunning blend of historical significance and gorgeous topography. Maybe visitors feel like visiting Tokyo alone will help them get their “city fix.” Whatever the reason, many miss Osaka, but to not visit this city is to miss out on one of the most welcoming places in Japan. Visiting Kyoto is an absolute must, as is Tokyo, this I agree with on all accounts. But this is a city that prides itself on its hospitality, accessibility and food; one cannot overlook Osaka, the “Kitchen of Japan.”

Choices abound in Dotonbori in Osaka

Choices abound in Dotonbori in Osaka

The first thing you’ll notice when arriving in Osaka is that everyone stands on the escalators to the right. One small difference from Tokyo, with such a large impact, is analogous to how Osaka views itself when compared to its larger and more famous sibling to the east. While Tokyo is known for its seemingly impenetrable and expensive Michelin-star-obsessed foodie culture, Osaka likes to open its doors to its visitors, showering its guests in affordable, high-quality consumables in surprisingly casual settings. Change, so it seems, can be a very good thing. While I love Tokyo’s unparalleled number of high end restaurants, it’s easy for the fatigue of being an outsider to settle in. For every door open to the adventurous in Tokyo, there are another dozen that will remain forever closed. That is most certainly not the case here.

The primary thing on the minds of Osakans in the know is food, with the only competing thought the nagging question of where to drink tonight. From our centrally located hotel, the stellar InterContinental Osaka, it was a mere five-minute subway ride to an excellent launching off point for both endeavors. Dotonbori is famous for its five-story tall Glico running man neon sign, various mechanized monstrosities such as the Kani Doraku crab adorning store fronts and enticing tourists into their food dens, and the canal, around which dozens of some of the best street food vendors in the world congregate. Arrive with an empty stomach and I promise that you will leave here happy. There is takoyaki, which some regard as the city’s signature treat. It is a ball of batter cooked in a cast-iron griddle stuffed with octopus, pickled ginger and green onions. Then there is my personal favorite, yakitori, tender skewered meats grilled over charcoal fires, seasoned to perfection. And then there is okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake filled with meat, onions, octopus, squid or shrimp; the list goes on, and it's the stuff street food dreams are made of. Even the aforementioned crab beckons diners to its doors, serving crab legs smoked over charcoal, a compulsory addition to your now rapidly growing waistline.

Store fronts beckoning for patrons in Osaka

Store fronts beckoning for patrons in Osaka

Fugu, or poisonous blowfish, is easily identified by the giant paper blowfish hanging out front.

Fugu, or poisonous blowfish, is easily identified by the giant paper blowfish hanging out front.

Now this isn't to say that Osaka lacks fine dining, as nothing could be further from the truth. A nearby city is quite famous for a product that has worldwide fame, Kobe. Known in Japan as wagyu beef, this most special of meats comes from the Tajima cattle and is renowned for its marbled tenderness. If time doesn't allow for a quick train ride out to the mecca of beef, Osaka has many options for us carnivores. Steak Ron, in Umeda, serves this delicacy teppanyaki style, with expert chefs cooking the steak to order table side. Do yourself a favor and order from one of their set menus, sit back with a red from their extensive collection, tie the included bib around your neck, and watch the masters cook up your perfect cut. When your experience inevitably, and sadly, comes to an end, you can leave through the back door, spilling out food-drunk into the alley, ready to take on Osaka's bustling nightlife. Or you can go take a nap. The choice is yours. But honestly, just follow the locals to any number of safe yet exciting neighborhoods and you will have a night of drunken revelry that can easily hold its own against Tokyo.

Wagyu beef at Steak Ron in Umeda

Wagyu beef at Steak Ron in Umeda

I woke up with a Kirin and wagyu hangover, still jetlagged and a fair bit confused as to which city I was in, but I was coddled in feather-soft linens as I gazed out over Osaka from the 25th floor of the InterContinental. Room service was a quick and easy cure for my self-inflicted ailments, and with my mind and body almost back to normal, we headed to the nearby Umeda Sky Building.  The name is a misnomer, as it is actually a towering duo of structures that are connected at the top with an elaborate spiderweb of observation decks and escalators that throw you out over the forty story chasm between them. The view from the top is breathtaking, a 360-degree view of the city, bay, and surrounding mountains, and it's open to the air. It only improves as the sun sets over the water and the city lights start to burn to life. Osaka is a bit more condensed than Tokyo, and it shows in its jewel-like nighttime skyline.

Room service at the InterContinental before heading to Umeda Sky Building

Room service at the InterContinental before heading to Umeda Sky Building

When you've had your fill of fried street meats, sake and stratospheric views, take a quick glance at your map. There are many world class facilities worth visiting, all beautifully connected through fast, clean and efficient public transportation. But this is Japan, so you already knew that. So what should you do? Well, you could go see the whale sharks in the world-class Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, famous for it's large deep water central tank, and then ride up the 330 foot Tempozan Ferris Wheel right next door. For some history, the gorgeous red and green trim of the Shitenno-ji temple, considered one of the first Buddhist temples in Japan, contrasts beautifully with the white stone zen gardens that surrounds it. The area around the InterContinental is comprised of the aptly named Grand Front Osaka, a collection of shops, coffee houses and restaurants that can entertain for days without making you take even a single step outdoors. And if you have kids there is even a Universal Studios, it's Harry Potter Hogwarts exhibit visible from most of the city.

Quite frankly, after spending time in Osaka you have to wonder why this beautiful, exciting port city of nearly three million people goes largely unnoticed to the international tourist. There is exceptional food and a vibrant night scene that is easily accessible to foreigners, intricate temples and shrines dot the map, and the people are extraordinarily friendly, eager to show off their city to anyone who will visit. Tokyo and Kyoto will always top the itineraries of visitors to Japan, but don’t do yourself a disservice and write Osaka off as just another city, as so many often do. It is a dynamic, sprawling and yet intimate display of some of the best that Japan has to offer. As I walked to the Umeda train station to head northeast to Kyoto, a pang of bittersweet emptiness hit me in the stomach, a gentle reminder of my time here; a feeling of what I imagine to be a lingering hunger for the deliciousness of its food and the warmth of its people.

- C

Arriving in Japan: Tokyo by Christopher Hunter

Japan. What can be said about Japan that countless others haven’t already said? Once you step foot into this neon wonderland, simultaneously shrouded in assumingly insurmountable mystery, the country takes a hold of you and doesn’t let go until you are securely back in your seat, wheels-up, climbing back out of Narita towards whatever corner of the globe you call home. It will leave you bewildered, obsessed, and in some surprising ways, shaken to your core. Everything you know about travel, about food, and about people, will be turned upside down. As our favorite tattooed CNN travel host alluded to on one of his many forays into the country, Japan is an exercise in experiencing the new, the very very old, and the undeniably different.

The Tokyo skyline from the Park Hyatt Tokyo

The Tokyo skyline from the Park Hyatt Tokyo

Bars such as Bar Tozaki in Ginza, like much of Japan, are hidden in small alleys and behind closed, seemingly impenetrable doors

Bars such as Bar Tozaki in Ginza, like much of Japan, are hidden in small alleys and behind closed, seemingly impenetrable doors

For many, the entry point to Japan is Tokyo. Do yourself a favor, if this is your first time to the country, make sure your point of entry is Tokyo. Nothing I, or any number of more clever writers, can write will prepare you for your first few hours here. Stepping off of the plane into Narita, or if you’re lucky the much closer Haneda, you are instantly transported to a world that is only vaguely reminiscent of anywhere else you have been before. For every moment that feels familiar, there are a dozen things that will disrupt your sense time and space.

Depending on your time of arrival, you’ll experience one of two sides of this massive city. For me, arrival in the early morning meant that I was introduced to the city gradually, with an almost eerie sense of calm. A forty-minute taxi ride from Haneda showed me glimpses of the city in a time-lapse fashion; skyscrapers and pagodas peeking out at me in the brief respites of open light that broke up the darkness of the tunnels. My previous study of maps of the city did me zero favors as I was instantly disoriented by the Japanese road signs and sheer vastness of the Tokyo skyline. I felt lost... And I was loving it. Through the rain-soaked window, my eyes darted from one stimulus to another as the sun slowly rose up out of the concrete monoliths and bathed the city in a serene glow. I was witnessing a country come to life. Tokyo was stepping out blinking into the morning sun, stretching as it shook off the hangover of another neon-drenched nightcap. A morning routine that had played out thousands of times before, as I watched the shop owners sweeping their sidewalks and the coffee shops flicking on their lights, was an experience that had changed my life forever. I just didn't know it yet.

Arriving at the Park Hyatt hotel in the Shinjuku neighborhood, I was whisked away and taken care of with immaculate hospitality. At first I chalked this up to the caliber of this hotel. I mean, come on, this is the infamous Park Hyatt, the hotel of Bill Murray and Scarlet Johannson fame. But as my time in Japan stretched on, it was clear that service and quality is the cornerstone of this society. Whether you’re arriving at a five-star hotel in the eye-wateringly expensive Tokyo hotel market, or waiting in line to slurp noodles in a basement bar with the salary men during the lunch break, my experience was consistent. It was always attentive and personal. It was uniformly excellent. The care this country takes to make sure their product is of the highest quality is something that will make your trip home to reality that much tougher of a pill to swallow. Those of you lucky enough to travel to Japan on an Asian airline, especially those of you sitting towards the front of the plane, will have had a taste of this already. Service is taken seriously here.

The Park Hyatt Tokyo is a stunning hotel. If you’re as lucky as I am and have the chance to stay here, you will live between the 39th and 52nd floors, surrounded by glass, seemingly floating above the city. It took me a while to come to terms with my new reality. Sitting on my hotel room window sill on the 42nd floor, realizing that Tokyo itself lay sprawling beneath me, is a moment I don’t think I will ever, could ever, forget. For as long as I can remember, to visit Japan was an unrealistic dream for me, but here I was, sitting hundreds of feet above its epicenter. Whether it was the jetlag, dehydration, or something else entirely, I am not ashamed to admit that this was an emotional moment. Even now, as I sit thousands of miles away, typing this brought a quick halt to my breath. Here I sat, and out there, stretching for miles in every direction, was Tokyo.

The view from the pool of the Park Hyatt Tokyo

The view from the pool of the Park Hyatt Tokyo

Nightly jazz at the New York Bar of the Park Hyatt Tokyo

Nightly jazz at the New York Bar of the Park Hyatt Tokyo

Do yourself a favor and spend as much of your time in Tokyo as possible outside of a taxi. You'll thank me later. What is essentially a necessity in other cities around the world is most often a hindrance to you here. There are only a few reasons, if any at all, to take a cab. (Since I took a taxi when I arrived in Tokyo, I realize this makes me a hypocrite, and for that I apologize.  But it was only after my return to the airport using the aptly named Limo Bus, at a fraction of the price and in incredible comfort, that I had realized my mistake.) When you're not peering out over the skyline from a pristine, stratospheric hotel lounge, Tokyo is at its best seen walking at street level. There is a sense of purpose and order to how its citizens move about the city. It's something I'd love to see adopted back in the States. Public transportation is easy, punctual and almost shockingly sterile for a metropolis of over 30 million people. Once you’re in your neighborhood of choice, go and get lost in its arteries and veins. The city is safe. And not just compared to other big cities safe, but Disneyland-safe.

As much as the feel of each neighborhood changes from block to block, the city as a whole transforms from a quietly bustling hive of productivity to an electric buzz of guarded debauchery as the sun falls in the sky. Nighttime in Tokyo is special. As I alluded to earlier, if morning in Tokyo is a steady and measured introduction to Japan, arriving at night can be an un-apologetically jarring transition into the most exciting place on earth. Neon-lit Akihabara is a gadget-lovers paradise, filled with equal parts technology and cosplayers. The commuter hubs of Shinjuku and Shibuya shed their practiced and conservative shells to give way to a boozy haze of dimly lit, smoke-filled whisky bars. The indescribable spectacle of the Robot Restaurant and the tiny bastions of inebriation tucked into the alleyways of Golden Gai (like the one-of-a-kind Albatross, try for a seat on the small third "floor") play off of each other to provide the adventurous with a night they won't soon forget... that is unless they soon forget it.

In Tokyo, it's easy to drink hard. City streets are lit up like Times Square for as far as the eye can see, with indecipherable signs explaining in Japanese what waits for the curious on each floor of those modern fortresses. Basement bars sit below street level eateries of all kinds, and second-thru-seventh floor karaoke bars loom high into the sky. Inventive and charming joints, such as mixology bars like the highly reviewed Bar Orchard where a plate of fruit is the bartender's menu, are tucked behind elevator entrances everywhere. Then, when it seems there is no relief to the madness in sight, you stumble into a Buddhist temple, gently lit by burgundy lanterns, and your rushing mind will violently lurch to a halt.  There is much more to Tokyo than the lights on its surface. You're immediately reminded this isn't Amsterdam or Rio. This is a different world entirely.

The infamous Robot Restaurant

The infamous Robot Restaurant

The inventive and original Bar Orchard in Ginza

The inventive and original Bar Orchard in Ginza

Endless alleys of microbars in the maze that is Golden Gai

Endless alleys of microbars in the maze that is Golden Gai

Serving drinks from the 2nd to 3rd floors in the Bar Albatross in Golden Gai

Serving drinks from the 2nd to 3rd floors in the Bar Albatross in Golden Gai

The next few days were a whirlwind of sights, sounds and smells. Oh my God, the delicious smells. For as important as it is for me to highlight the impeccable level of service in Japan, it would be a damnable offense to omit this simple truth; there is not, and cannot be, a better place on earth to eat. Not Paris, or London, or New York. Not Italy or Brazil. I’ve been to those places and I have eaten well. But I repeat, Japan has the best food in the world. Home to more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city, Tokyo is a gastronomical mecca of epic proportions. Do yourself a favor, early on in your visit, perhaps even in the early morning of your arrival, eat sushi. If you talk to people who have been to Japan they will be quick to name off a few of the great places they had this most Japanese of delicacies. There are three-star chefs everywhere in Ginza serving the perfect nigiri, there is the fresh-as-can-be Tsukiji fish market and its infamous sushi breakfast, and there is a sushi shop on just about every other corner of the city. While I had an unbelievable experience at the hands of the skilled and humble chef at Sushi Iwa (in Ginza, I really cannot recommend this place enough) and I have had friends eat at the famous shops near the fish market, the honest truth is that it’s nearly impossible to go wrong here. It doesn’t matter where you go. Just eat sushi. And eat it often.

Remember, though, that Tokyo is a hugely dense and dynamic place; the show must go on. The gourmet gluttony should not, cannot, end here. Japan is stuffed with world-class wagyu steakhouses, delicious and unique street food (fried batter and octopus, anyone?), and the ubiquitous noodle shop. Eat everywhere and try everything. But, if there is one meal I could magically transport back to Columbus, Ohio and have every day for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t need more time than a minute to rightfully choose the ramen noodle lunch. I truly believe this is the closest I will ever get to a bonafide religious experience. Let me try to transport you to Friday, September 16, 2016. It was around one o'clock in the afternoon and the city was getting hammered by torrential rain. My girlfriend and I were exhausted, having just arrived in Japan that morning. We were now in Shibuya, a bustling neighborhood made famous by its huge and overwhelming eponymous crossing. We were hungry and we were soaked. Due to some diligent research on my partner’s behalf, we at least had a plan for lunch. If it wasn’t for her, I would probably still be wandering the streets of Tokyo, most likely starving, but probably quite content to attempt to subsist solely on the city's sights and sounds. Thankfully, and thanks to her, we had a mission; keep an eye out for the red banners.

After a short time, made even shorter because getting around Japan is actually a pleasant experience, we found it. After a wait on the perilously wet steps of the tucked-away basement restaurant, we made it to the magical machine that translated our button pushes and a few hundred yen into a meal ticket to our own personal Shangri-La. Moments later and we were seated at a partitioned bar, as anonymous hands placed a steaming hot bowl of noodles, broth, green and white onions, pork cutlets, and hot sauce in front of me. A moment later those presumably same hands placed a tall, foamy glass of ice-cold Asahi beer on my counter. As quickly as they appeared, those hands vanished behind a waving, bamboo curtain. As strange as it seemed, we were hungry and wet and we wasted no time over-analyzing our situation. It was time to eat. The ramen was a piping hot mixture of spicy and savory, each bite a love letter to comfort food from around the world. When my over-eagerness punished me with a burnt tongue, a long pull from my icy beer was enough to cure it. I think it cured everything. And then, all too soon, and much to my dismay, it was over. As unceremoniously as it started, we walked back out into the rain, umbrellas up, our stomachs and spirits more content than ever before, and perhaps ever since.

The indescribably satisfying ramen noodle lunch. Photo credit: @kchartier01 via Instragram

The indescribably satisfying ramen noodle lunch. Photo credit: @kchartier01 via Instragram

This order of events was true of much of our stay in Japan. From discovering Central Park-rivalling green spaces with stunning temples and shrines, sampling as many obscure but delicious vending machine snacks and drinks as we could, or perusing the wonder that is the Japanese convenience store, each new experience would start out with some slight anxiety over looking like an idiot. Or infinitely worse, an ugly American tourist. This most foreign of places with the most foreign of languages has a steep learning curve. But in the end, we were consistently left feeling exhilarated and honestly wondering how we had ever existed on this earth without this country in our lives.

We stayed in two more impressive hotels in Tokyo, the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi Hills and the Conrad in Minato. The former is a bustling, cosmopolitan behemoth, with nine restaurants on site. We even stumbled into a Belgian beerfest outside of the hotel, apparently celebrating the 150 years of Belgian-Japanese friendship. In truly Japanese fashion, I have never, and probably will never, experience a festival as organized as this one. Glass washing stations every few feet, a token system for 120+ beers color coded by region and type, followed by a giant rock-paper-scissors game that included the entire audience? Only in Japan. The Conrad was a night spent bathed in pure luxury, with an upgraded suite, more amenities than the two of us could have ever used (who needs two toilets, a separate living room, four TVs and a walk-in closet?) and a view over the Tokyo Bay that quite simply left me awestruck. The room also came with the famous Conrad bears and rubber ducky, which is worth the price of admission on its own in my book. While some hotels were better than others at that sort of intangible, behind-the-scenes, almost paranormal level of service Japan is famous for, all three hotels were uniformly excellent. If you have the budget, as rooms start at $500 a night and can easily climb into the quadruple digits, you can’t go wrong with any of them. But something tells me, when it comes to hospitality, it's tough to go wrong at all in Japan.

Where the Grand Hyatt Tokyo and Roppongi Hills meet

Where the Grand Hyatt Tokyo and Roppongi Hills meet

Breakfast in the lobby restaurant of the Conrad Toyko, overlooking Tokyo Bay

Breakfast in the lobby restaurant of the Conrad Toyko, overlooking Tokyo Bay

Japan is a place that I knew had the capacity to change me in unexpected ways. What I wasn't ready for was the fact that visiting Tokyo, and Japan as a whole, would change the way I look at all aspects of my life. There is just so much that this country gets right. At its most obvious, the service and food in Japan are head and shoulders above the rest of the world. There is an honor among the population here in delivering only what they believe to be the very best. There is a deeply rooted sense of order and calm that permeates the chaotic surface of Japan's immense cities. Perhaps deeper still is the sense of mystery that Japan left me with.

After just ten nights, one can only expect to scratch at the outer layer of this complex and friendly society. The people of this country were simultaneously warm and somewhat distant. The Japanese pride themselves in their homogeneity, and in some ways, for better or worse, it has protected them from some of the pitfalls most other developed nations now face. Unfortunately, it has also left Japan with a rapidly aging population and many Japanese chronically overworked. One thing is certain, though, that while in any other country, feeling like an outsider would be considered a bad thing, I can't say I felt that negativity here. Now, after visiting Japan and returning home, I find myself longing to be an outsider there again, to bear witness to the incredibly nuanced and complex performance that is Japan. How has this country changed me? Well, I'm not completely sure I know. I'll be reminiscing about Japan for the rest of my life, always rediscovering what it meant to me to be able to experience this most fascinating island nation. But I can say this. Japan will be the first place on my long list of destinations where I will break my cardinal rule and visit more than once, even if it means missing out on something else. Japan gave me my first hit of its addicting allure for free, and it knocked me on my ass. Now I will do anything to get my fix.

- C

Tokyo at Night

Tokyo at Night