It's Christmas Eve when Yasmin Suteja is scheduled to fly to Japan. "It’s a quintessential thirty degree Sydney summer’s day," the photographer notes, and yet, here she is filling her bags with thermals for a 10pm flight.
"I run out to get a Uniqlo puffer jacket because I’m told I’ll absolutely need one when I get off the flight. For me this year, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas in Sydney. I wonder whether this is because of the December we had last year, and a certain energy pushing us to “carpe diem” – book that flight, take that holiday, and make impromptu decisions again."
With her parents in Bali, her brother in Paris and her boyfriend one week ahead, waiting for her to arrive in Japan, there's nothing left for Suteja to do but head to the airport. Next stop, Tokyo.
Below, Yasmin Suteja shares her travel diary from the trip, divulging her favourite places for vintage and secondhand shopping (a Comme des Garçons coat was secured), along with the spots she ate at, the galleries she visited and the friends she made along the way.
I’ve come to the Double Bay sushi train for my pre-flight lunch. It’s strange having a flight at 10pm. You’ve got the whole day to live normally without the same pressure and rush. But it’s this liminal space where you’re constantly second guessing the pace at which you’re living that normal day. I can hear some of the staff at the Sushi Train speaking Indonesian, which is a reminder of the mobility of culture and cuisine and language.
I’m nervous about flying on Christmas Eve. Will I feel lonely? Will the airport be deserted? The flight empty? And then I realise I’ll be getting a glimpse into the lives of people who don’t celebrate Christmas.
You’ll do a lot of walking in Tokyo, so make sure to pack comfortable shoes. It’s mostly flat but you’ll be going up and down staircases every time you change train lines. I’ve packed my luggage, weighed it, printed all my documents, set my locks and put my Air Tags in each bag.
At the Qantas lounge Christmas carols are playing and people are drinking champagne. Some of the destinations that flash up on the board include Wellington, Vancouver, Dubai, Haneda and Hong Kong. The family sitting beside me is flying to Vancouver. They’re concerned about flight cancellations because of the snow.
On flying to Tokyo
I have a fairly smooth nine hour flight to Haneda and wake up to the comforting voice of the captain announcing “Good morning everyone, and a very Merry Christmas”. The flight attendants are wearing Santa hats and everything about this gives me that warm nostalgia for 90s Christmas movies. Suddenly I don't feel alone. I’m ready for my adventure.
There are two airports you can book when flying to Japan. I recommend flying into Haneda if you’re planning to stay around Shibuya. It’s much closer than Narita and you’ll save yourself a few hundred dollars in cab fares. Catching the train is fine on arrival if you’ve packed light, but I don't recommend it on departure as you’re sure to have accumulated a few extra kilos in your luggage from all the great shopping. When you land at the airport you can purchase a Welcome Suica card for short term visits. It can be used for up to 28 days. If you’re planning to travel outside of Tokyo, to places like Kyoto on the bullet train, you’ll need to get a separate JR Pass.
My boyfriend meets me at the airport. I land at 6am and we can’t check into our AirBnB until 3pm, so we’ve got a full day to fill. Christmas isn’t really celebrated in Japan. I read that it is more like Valentine’s Day for Japanese couples who spend the day going on dates. So, we decide to go for something familiar and our first stop was Bills Harajuku. Bills Surry Hills was one of our first date spots, so this felt fitting and hotcakes on Christmas Day felt right. The waiter introduces himself, and says he is a Korean visual artist living in Japan. He's excited to learn that we're Australian and says he meets a lot of Australians while working at Bills. We exchange Instagram profiles to keep in touch and he tells us that Australian footballer “Bazlenka” (aka Bailey Smith) follows him.
We walk down one of my favourite streets – a one kilometre tree lined avenue called Omotesando. The light is so beautiful in the early hours of the morning flooding through the trees and bouncing off skyrise buildings. I think I commented on how beautiful the light is every single day I was in Tokyo. The sun sets quite early, so golden hour is that sweet spot between 3:30-4pm. Warm rays of soft light will ricochet off buildings from every direction.
Next stop is Nezu Gallery. A beautiful gallery in the Minato district of Tokyo that displays a diverse collection of Japanese and East Asian pre-modern art. I particularly loved the handscrolls and ink landscapes. I read that “Sansui” is the Japanese and Chinese word for landscape. But more than just a depiction of natural scenes, the word “Sansui” has strong connotations of being remote from the mundane world and of a presence in contrast to human society.
I find the constant conversation between nature and society really interesting in Japan. One of the first things I noticed was the sound of birds chirping on loop through a speaker at the underground train station. Even in a city like Tokyo, there are reminders of nature sprinkled throughout the routines of the day. I wonder whether I feel detached by what seems like an artificial substitute, mourning for what was lost, or comforted by the reminder of the omnipresence of the natural world seeping its way into the underground station?
That evening, for Christmas Dinner, we had a reservation at Kozue on the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel. Sofia Coppola shot Lost In Translation at the New York Bar in the same building. We looked out at an incredible view of the city while we waited for the shrimp soup which took forty minutes to prepare. The staff were dressed in traditional kimonos, and it felt like we were floating in the sky.
On Japanese design
For a city, Tokyo is very quiet in terms of aggregate audio levels. People don’t make noise for the sake of it. They speak in soft inside voices, and there are signs in public places discouraging talking in order to stop the spread of covid. Even the children are quiet. It makes you want to quietly reflect even when sitting on a packed train at peak hour.
Everyone is wearing a mask in Tokyo. Everywhere from out on the street to inside department stores, on the train and even in cafes. Some people will even sit at a coffee date chatting with masks on. If you’re not wearing a mask it’s obvious you’re a tourist and it seems disrespectful. So we wear our masks the whole time.
I remember my first trip to Japan three years ago, I saw lots of people wearing masks. I was told it was largely for hay fever because I was there during Cherry Blossom season. It is an integrated part of Japanese society that existed well before the global Covid pandemic, particularly in the city.
There is so much consideration for clean, ergonomic, minimal waste design and general cleanliness. Every public bathroom I visited was impeccably designed, with soft, flattering, warm lighting at the washbasin. The toilets themselves are more advanced than some of my first computers. Most of them have auto seat warmers and auto flush. There’s also an option to play ambient sounds while you do your business. There’s a lot of modesty and consideration of others woven into Japanese culture. In many ways throughout my trip I found this humbling, coming from a hyper-individualistic culture where we prioritise our own needs before others.
The next day we linked up with my good friend and fellow photographer Seiya Taguchi. Seiya lives and works in Sydney and was visiting his family in Japan for the holidays. He invited us to the exhibition Picasso and His Time: Masterpieces from Museum Berggruen/Nationalgalerie Berlin showing at the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno. The exhibit brings the world-class collection of the German art dealer Heinz Berggrühn to Tokyo, with 76 pieces that have never been exhibited in Japan before.
We are constantly doing the delicate dance of heattech thermals – necessary when outdoors, overheating as soon as we’re indoors. I sit out the front of the museum eating matcha green tea soft serve ice cream in a cone.
After the exhibit, Seiya takes us for a walk through Ameyoko Shopping Street, known colloquially as “America Street” from when it was the site of a market where a lot of American products were sold in the years following WWII. Seiya takes us for Oyako-don (Salmon roe and salmon sashimi on a bed of rice) at a small market seller. It would go down as the most delicious meal from my whole time in Tokyo. The fish was so fresh! The combination of raw salmon, rice, wasabi and soy sauce was perfect. We finished up with some dessert at Beard Papa where I ordered a cream puff with custard filling.
It was the last business day for a lot of the restaurants and bars. And Seiya explained that many of them would be celebrating the new year with a tradition called bōnenkai, which translates literally to "forget the year", a time for coworkers and friends to gather and drink to celebrate the end of the year. After some more walking and a visit to the Sensō-ji temple, we were ready for dinner.
Seiya navigated to a spot he found on Tablelog but it had closed for the year. So we went on a walk and stumbled across a karaage spot at the underground station. Another great tip we got from Seiya, is to just walk around and look for places to eat without relying too heavily on Google. Sometimes these were the best hidden gems. One of my other favourite food memories was trying MonkFish for the first time with Seiya at Akari in Shimokitazawa. I was a little hesitant at first after Seiya showed me a photo of what the fish looks like, but it was one of the most delicious meals I had. Shimokitazawa is also a great area for thrift shopping.
Being in Japan during New Year is really special. It’s a very spiritual time of year. The dominant tradition is to attend the temple and pay respects, asking for protection for the new year. It’s a time to spend with family.
But it also means that a lot of businesses are closed. Because of this, the best way to find food is inside department stores with holiday trading hours. I ended up lost on the bottom floor of a department store in Ginza full of confectionery. I bought what I discovered were New Year’s Eve treats. The Google Translate app came in handy. I held my phone up to text and took a photo and it automatically translated to English. Sometimes the text is jumbled but I can get the general gist. The app is crucial to my first toilet experience when I struggle to find the flush on the giant panel of buttons.
On our second day, we woke up a bit later as most businesses in Tokyo don’t open until 11am. Breakfast isn’t really a priority. And eggs on toast are not a typical breakfast. Some mornings we walked over to the Family Mart and ate Onigiri for breakfast. But we got too familiar with all the Family Mart snacks and started making ourselves sick eating Pocky at 9am. Family Mart is not your regular convenience store. The snacks are superior. The seaweed wrapped around the Onigiri is so fresh you can hear the crunch. You can also buy gloves, shampoo, and fresh coffee. It’s a one stop shop and there's a Family Mart every few hundred metres. One of our favourite Family Mart snacks was the Meiji Takenoko – there’s a bamboo shoot version and a mushroom version. We had a debate after karaoke about which one is better. I still think the bamboo shoots are better!
When it comes to finding spots to eat, Tablelog is the most reliable source rated by locals. Although often, when walking through the streets we’d spot a long line of people waiting. We’d try to investigate what they were waiting for and most of the time it was for food. We began to realise that if there’s no line to get in, it’s probably not good! It wasn’t uncommon for us to wait up to 45 minutes for a seat at popular food spots. The longest wait I did was for Afuri Ramen. But I’d heard so many great recommendations I had to try it – and it did not disappoint.
I love ramen, and on the cheap and fast end you have Ichiran. You get a ticket from a machine out the front, make selections on flavour and spice from a multiple choice sheet of paper, then sit down at little pods, and your ramen will be handed to you through a hole in the wall behind a little bamboo curtain.
If you’re used to Sydney and Melbourne coffees with dairy alternatives, then Japan can be a bit tricky. But my favourite coffee spots were Fuglen Coffee and Onibus Coffee. Both are very popular and you’ll need to wait in line.
I also have a sweet tooth, and my love language is a little treat paired with tea. One of my favourite desserts was the Matcha Tiramisu at Urasando Garden (not to be confused with The Garden which is close by), a renovated 1940s traditional style house with a mix of small cafes and eateries. I also loved the little Castella Cake, or Kasutera at Higashiya Ginza and the waffles at the Ghetto Gastro pop-up at Sacai Store.
Even though I promised myself I’d only eat local while I was away, we did end up going to Bills one more time. This time we went to Bills Ginza which was on the top floor of a big commercial building with an incredible view of the city. The name, Ginza, comes from the words gin meaning “silver” and za meaning “guild”. It is the most glamorous shopping district in Tokyo and one of the best-known in the world.
On our third day, we took Seiya’s advice, ditched Trip Advisor to let our instincts find a spot. We stumbled across an abura soba spot down a side street in Shibuya. Abura are soup-less or no stock noodles. You eat the noodles first then add stock to gather any remaining flavour at the end.
That evening we met up with an old friend of mine, Julia Abe, who is a Japanese model I worked with on a campaign three years ago on my first trip to Japan. Julia was celebrating the end of year with some close friends at Space Banksia – a gallery, cafe and studio space.
Tokyo is known for shopping – especially thrift shopping. One of my favourite thrift stores is Kinji Used Clothing in the heart of Harajuku. It’s a second-hand store with good prices, and sometimes you’ll be lucky to find luxury designer brands. The great thing about Tokyo is that thrift shopping is still that – good quality second hand. The thrift stores haven't been invaded by fast fashion yet, in the same way they have in Sydney.
When in Tokyo, Dover Street Market is always a must. A seven-floor department store that can feel more like an art gallery. Dover Street Market is known for its curated selection of designer and one-off collaborations. We had tea and scones up at the top floor, at Rose Bakery.
While waiting in line for coffee one day, I started chatting with a Japanese man who was taking photos for his friends who owned the cafe. I said I work in fashion and asked if he had any recommendations for where to buy second-hand designer. He told me about 10 Tow, a shop within walking distance of the cafe. It wasn’t on any of the lists people had given me and I was so grateful! I found a Comme des Garçons coat for $300. The store was a bit tricky to find and as Seiya has said, finding most of the best places in Tokyo means looking up! Often they are not on street level and require a lift or flight of stairs to access. I found this with lots of camera stores too.
The second hand camera market in Japan is of a very high standard. Every time I visit Japan I go camera shopping. In fact, most of the cameras in my kit were purchased on my first trip, including my Pentax 6x7 medium format and my Contax T2 point and shoot. At most stores in Japan if you take your passport with you, you can get tax free.
This time I visited a few camera stores in Ginza which were all within walking distance of each other. I found a Mamiya RZ67 at Lemon Camera but didn’t buy it because I had nowhere to store it in my luggage! You can also buy new cameras at Yodobashi in Shinjuku. The prices have gone up a lot since my last trip, largely due to scarcity of old cameras in good condition but also because of the boom in popularity thanks to celebrities like Kendall Jenner posting them. I saw a Contax T3 for the equivalent of $4,000 AUD. I think I bought my T2 for $800, three years ago.
One of my most surprising shopping experiences was at Don Quijote – the biggest discount store in Japan. Basically you can find anything and everything at this eight-level department store. I shopped big on beauty and skincare. There was a wall called the “face mask museum” with every type of sheet mask you can think of. I also bought this hair oil called Tsubaki Oshima that has made my hair so silky.
From discount stores to luxury brands, I walked past NEWoMan and saw one of the stores was having a 30% off sale and ended up getting a pair of Dries Van Noten boots on sale! And in case I wasn't sure about my luggage limit, I added a solid 5kgs to my bags at Tsutaya Books where I picked up, among a stack of other books, Fairy Tales by Petra Collins.
I also found that asking sales clerks questions led me on to even greater discoveries. When I walked into BEAMS Tokyo I started tapping my feet immediately to all the great music that was playing. One thing I found myself doing a lot in Tokyo was asking “Hey Siri, what's this song?” When I tried several times and nothing came up I asked the sales clerk what song was playing and he told me it was a mix playing on soundcloud radio. I got a snapshot of it on my phone and haven’t stopped listening. When I went to the checkout to purchase a Sasquatchfabrix Jacket, the sales clerk complimented my Kim Victoria rings, and showed me the ring he was wearing, which was an amazing vintage gold ring with ornate carvings and a large stone. I asked where it was from and he told me about Jewelry Town in Okachimachi. I asked him about his favourite Japanese stylist and he named Keita Izuka.
New Year's Eve
On New Year's Eve we decided to follow tradition and make our visit to Meiji Jingu Shinto shrine in Shibuya. It’s surreal to know there’s a giant holy temple a 10 minute walk from the hustle and bustle of Harajuku. It was freezing that night, so we stopped to add more layers on, including our Family Mart gloves which have handy little slits for your fingers so you can quickly access your phone.
When making our way into the temple we made sure to stay back and watch what others are doing, and follow along in order to show our respect. The first thing we did was wash our hands at the entrance to the temple. We watched people walk up to the shrine and throw a coin, bow three times and clap twice. We both did this. We then made our way over to the Omikuji, which are fortunes often told in the form of poems. You stand at a wooden box with numbers labelled on each little drawer. Then a wooden shaker will throw out a number which correlates with the drawer from which to collect your fortune. The word kuji means lottery, and getting your omikuji always comes with an element of randomness. After the temple we walked through the nearby night markets.
I got some dorayaki pancakes with chocolate filling from one of the street stalls. I ended up coming back to get a box with a mix of chocolate and custard filling. They were so good. The market also had a self-serve birth chart which gives you another randomised fortune for the year. You enter a coin and then follow the month vertically and the day horizontally to find the slot where you pick out a piece of paper with your correlating fortune. Unfortunately not many people can read these because they’re written in ancient Kanji. We walked home through the night markets and were in bed by 9pm. We wished each other happy near year at midnight, and went to sleep.
Galleries to visit
A lot of the galleries I had planned to go to were closed the day we went. I really wanted to visit Nanzuka Underground but will have to save this for my next trip. It’s not easy to check what’s open, as Google doesn’t really update. So we ended up having to search Reddit for holiday trading hours.
I had heard great things about Mori Art Museum and was pleased to see a lot of photography on display. I found Kanagawa Shingo’s piece father particularly striking – a portrait series following the life of his own father, who has a history of repeatedly disappearing from his family, only to return for brief moments.
Another stand out for me was the exhibit at the end of the gallery, the MAM Project 030 x MAM Digital by Yamauchi Shota.
Shota’s digital media works make attempts to illuminate the relationship between self and world. The Planet of Faces is a commissioned video installation work that is rendered in real time. People can participate in the work via tablet or access it on a dedicated website from anywhere via PC or smartphone. The user inputs prompts that create an avatar that is uploaded to the server resulting in a planet made up of multiple faces constantly in flux.
TeamLabs was an experience. I just remember laughing so hard at watching a huge group of us get on our knees and try to wade through giant squishy balls to enter the exhibit. You may recognise imagery from TeamLabs shared on Kendall Jenner, Hayley and Justin Bieber’s Instagram. First, you need to pre-purchase tickets. You’re given an allocated time slot to allow for crowd control. Expect to be in line for another 45 minutes even if you have prepaid tickets. Next, you’ll be told to take off your shoes and roll up your pants. You’re given a warning that there are sections of the exhibit with water that will come up to adult knee height.
It’s a unique exhibit that is truly multi-sensory and immersive. It felt like being at a theme park and an art gallery at the same time. My favourite section was the knee-deep water. There was something so surreal about wading through warm water with no shoes on, in a dark room filled with a crowd of strangers, with projections of coy fish swimming around our feet! There was another really impressive section with live projections of flowers on the roof but this set off my vertigo so I couldn’t stay long.
On meeting new people
One non-negotiable when it comes to travelling, is making an effort to connect with and meet new people, especially locals. I had mentioned my upcoming trip to a friend in Sydney, who connected me with his friend Airi via DMs. Airi grew up in Japan and was kind enough to invite me out to dinner with her high school friends. We had a set menu dinner at Osaka Kitchen, followed by a fun night of Karaoke at one of the most luxurious karaoke bars I’ve been to, Rainbow Karaoke in Shibuya. We had a large private room to ourselves which looked more like a hotel room complete with a cloak cupboard. It was so fun to hear everyone singing popular Japanese songs! And, of course, karaoke isn’t complete without at least one rendition of Evanescence Bring Me To Life and Airi committed to one of the greatest karaoke covers I’ve seen yet.
On our fourth day we met up with Hayami, another internet friend! Hayami is a designer at Fig & Viper and I had been following her on instagram, so I reached out to see if she would want to meet up. We invited her to dinner with Seiya at Hakata Jidori Fukuei and then ended up at DJ BAR OATH, a bar filled with chandeliers at the bottom of a staircase lined with ornate mirrors. Smoking is allowed inside.
I’m so grateful I got to spend Christmas and the new year in Tokyo. I’ll sign off by saying, Arigato gozaimasu, Japan! And an extra special thanks to Seiya, Airi and Hayami for sharing their culture and company with me.
Planning a trip to Tokyo? See Yasmin Suteja's Google Map itinerary for further inspiration.