"It's like you can't possibly walk slowly enough to take it all in."

"Tokyo subway at rush hour: You could hear a pin drop."

"Heated toilet seats. Heated toilet seats. Heated toilet seats."

These are texts that I sent to myself during the 10 days I spent in Japan last winter. I have well over a dozen of them, and I'm so glad of that. While photos help preserve memories, not everything can be photographed (like awe, silence or unexpected warmth). On my first trip to Japan, visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Osaka, I wanted to remember everything.


Exploring Japan felt a little like playing a video game. With every turn, it was like I'd made it to the next level, whether I was walking past a vending machine that sells hats for cats in Osaka, encountering Hello Kitty traffic barriers in Tokyo, or trying to follow the rules of the free-range monkey park in Kyoto.

When I try to explain the wonderment of exploring Japan, it's the little things that keep coming up, some preserved in the form of the text messages shared in quotes below. Those snapshots helped guarantee that I would remember the tiny details that made every moment feel like a discovery.

That sensation of being swept up in a (fast-moving) parade characterized much of our visit. It was there in the overwhelming crush of nearly 12,000 shockingly orderly people crossing the street at the same time at the famous "Shibuya scramble" traffic crossing in Tokyo. And in the endless procession of vending machines on the streets, where you can find hot soup,beer and even costumes for your cat. It's what it felt like to explore Don Quijote in Osaka, a general store where we lost hours winding up and down aisles across six floors, looking at things such as snack packs of crunchy dried crabs; KitKats of every imaginable flavor (sweet potato! red pepper!); and a mind-blowing array of surgical masks. The succession of new, shiny objects was dizzying.

I wanted a giant pause button I could press so the world around me would stop. As it turns out, I really needed 26 - the letter keys on my phone - to do it.

If you go

Where to stay:

Seikoro Ryokan

467 Nishitachibana-cho, Kyoto



This traditional Japanese inn dates back to 1831. Guests sleep on futons atop tatami floor mats and soak in wooden bathtubs. Service goes above and beyond: an attendant will bring a multicourse dinner and breakfast to your room, and there's also an on-site public bath. Rooms start at about $300.

Where to eat

Mouriya Gion

7-1 Yamatocho, Yamato Ojitori 4-jo Kudaru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto



This high-end teppanyaki steakhouse has 34 seats and guests get to watch their own chef cook Kobe beef - along with vegetables and rice - to absolute perfection. Kobe beef dinners range from about $50 to $160 per person, not including beverages.

What to do

Iwatayama Monkey Park

8 Arashiyama Genrokuyama-cho, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto



The payoff for a 20-minute hike up a fairly steep hill is a park filled with free-range Japanese macaques, a.k.a. snow monkeys. You can feed them for a small fee, or just stand back and take it all in. But follow the rules and don't make eye contact - they don't like that. Tickets are around $5 for adults and around $2 for kids 5 to 14.

Don Quijote

7-13 Muneonemoncho-cho, Chuo Ward, Osaka



If Don Quijote doesn't have it, you might not really need it. You can find these general stores, packed with toiletries, cosmetics, food, appliances, toys and even costumes (sometimes including costumes for pets) in a number of cities around Japan. The six-level, 24-hour Don Quijote Dotonburi is in the Chuo Ward of Osaka.