What's Popular


I’m not going to be koi – spending time in Japan, with its unmatched cultural history and overwhelming beauty, was a life-affirming experience. I’m so grateful.
I’m not going to be koi – spending time in Japan, with its unmatched cultural history and overwhelming beauty, was a life-affirming experience. I’m so grateful.

Diving into Japan’s Thousands Years of History!

From ancient temples to modern street fashion...and everything in between!

Neil Patrick Harris is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Wondercade. In his spare time he also acts — fairly well, too, as his Tony and Emmy Awards can attest.

February 14, 2024 2:50 pm

 In Partnership with Japan National Tourism Organization

Neil, David and the kids went to JAPAN! This article highlights what they learned about the country’s rich culture, long history and time-honored traditions. Click here for another article about the adventurous, well, adventures they got into in Japan; click here to live vicariously through a drool-inducing culinary crawl.

In Tokyo, we walked around the old neighborhood of Asakusa — a former red-light district from the Edo period (which lasted from 1603 to 1868, when Japan was ruled by the shogunate and samurai), and home to the stunning Buddhist temple Sensoji. We strolled the seemingly limitless food stalls and promptly snacked on puffed rice crackers, candied Japanese plums and pickled cucumbers. Yum.

At Japanese temples, you can get a slip of paper that tells you your fortune. If it’s bad, you tie it to the rack to leave behind. (David got a bad fortune.)

Early the next morning, it was off to Meiji-jingu Shrine. A huge building that is one of Japan’s most famous Shinto shrines, it’s made of cypress and copper and surrounded by 100,000 trees in a tranquil forest — again, so quiet! — with people praying and lighting incense. It really instilled a sense of calm within me. And good fortune, quite literally: there were stands with hundreds of fortune-filled drawers, and you could shake a metal container and withdraw a thin stick revealing a number that corresponded to a particular drawer/fortune. Some were very good (me!), some less so (David!). Thankfully, you could hang your bad fortunes on metal racks to rid yourself of the juju.

Take us back!

We then shifted gears and hit up the bright, raucous, crowded hub of Harajuku, the vanguard of street fashion, pop culture and sooo many sweets shops: think crepes and ice cream and cotton candy and snow cones and rainbow grilled cheeses — when you pull apart the sandwich, the gooey cheese reveals a rainbow du fromage. Harper, my ever-curious teenage girl, promptly fell in love with the neighborhood. Especially with those candied strawberries on a stick they were selling everywhere, but also with all the fashion boutiques and thrift stores. As she and David shopped, Gideon and I spent some time (and a small fortune) on gashapon, also called “gacha gacha” machines: basically, a modern version of those old toy vending machines that pop out random, collectables in little capsules after you put a coin in. In some Tokyo neighborhoods, gashapon are everywhere — in Harajuku, we found one street corner that had literally dozens of them. Sadly, as much as Gideon adores Pokémon, we couldn’t catch ‘em all when it came to the cute, tiny figurines. (There are only so many coins in the world. And in my pocket.) I think I came home with, maybe, 50 plastic spheres filled with delightful, plastic randomness? I’m perplexed/obsessed with the logic in deciding what gets created: small cats eating noodles? Different pastries relaxing in a sauna? Six types of miniature turnstiles?!? So brilliant.

The next day brought bustling Shibuya, home to some of the city’s most vibrant nightlife, shopping, entertainment options, youth culture and of course…the iconic scramble crossing. Here’s my high-speed GIF of the madness:

While gawking at the Crossing, we learned a heartwarming story, which I will do my best to recount for you…. Shibuya Crossing is home to one of the most famous meeting places in the world: the statue of Hachiko the dog. Back in the 1920s, a dog named Hachiko would meet his master, a professor who worked at a nearby university, outside Shibuya Station every day as his human returned home from work. One day, the professor passed away of a stroke…yet Hachiko continued to faithfully await his master at the station until he died. (Excuse me for a moment as I wipe away my tears and hug my dogs. Okay, I’m back.) A statue was erected in the loyal and loving pup’s honor, and it’s become one of the most famous meeting places in the country. Take that, Lassie.

Hachiko the dog. Such! A! Good! Boy!

No trip to Tokyo would be complete without a visit to the “electric town” of Akihabara — named so because of its many electronics shops. There are hundreds of tiny spots brimming with secondhand gadgets and retro tech parts from decades past: paradise for any tinkerer or collector. There are also scores of huge department stores peddling the latest, most bleeding-edge gadgets, too: palm-sized projectors, next-level smartphones, insertable brain chips, you name it. Not to mention all the multi-story arcades and video game shops, and to my and Gideon’s delight, hordes of gacha gacha machines, too! (I tried in vain to find more turnstiles, but no luck….)

The next stop on the Burtka-Harris journey through Japan was charming and historic Kanazawa: a lovely castle town two-and-a-half hours west of Tokyo. Decidedly way less crazy than the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, Kanazawa is simple beauty and bliss: hearing the leaves rustle in the wind in the trees of the truly spectacular gardens, or the clop-clop-clop of the wooden geta sandals of women in full kimono walking around one of the country’s best-preserved old towns. The brilliant and bright kimono really pop against the rows of lovely brown wooden teahouses, which date back hundreds of years. (It’s like this country doesn’t even try to be visually appealing, and it just is! At. Every. Turn.) We opted for historic onsen lodging surrounded by nature — minimal furniture, no technology, and we wore their provided yukatas. It was giving off proper Tarantino movie vibes. 

David in a yukata. Four words that absolutely send me.

We ate the best ramen of our lives. We sat in a moss garden with 200 varieties of moss. Harper and Gideon wondered aloud if the head of the garden was known as the Moss Boss. (I love my kids — and that they inherited my penchant for dad jokes.) We met a geisha. And we toured the massive Kanazawa Castle, built in 1583 to house some of the most powerful feudal lords in the land (particularly the Maeda samurai clan, which ruled for 14 generations — that’s a lot of nepo babies), and walked the absolutely lovely Kenrokuen Garden, one of Japan’s most famous. Which is saying something, considering the country is famous for gardens. The stately Japanese pine trees, tucked-away teahouses, tiny waterfalls, and rambling and leaf-strewn footpaths were all sublime.

Kyoto: the ancient capital city. It’s a bastion of history, culture, architecture and more, and it’s probably what you think of when you think of old Japan: bamboo forests, tea ceremonies, bright orange torii gates. Stunning temple after stunning temple. Geisha walking down narrow streets. Delicious, traditional food, like tempura, tofu and miso soup. It was David’s favorite stop. And honestly might have been mine, too.

My family finds peace – if not transcendence (yet!) – during a guided morning meditation

It all started with meditation in the morning — which, in my opinion, is a great way to start any morning — but especially apropos in a place like this, when you’re being taught how to do it by a Buddhist monk, surrounded by bonsai trees.

A 1,250-year-old architectural and engineering marvel, Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto’s many must-see temples

And then, the temples. Kiyomizu-dera was fan-freaking-tastic. Picture this: a 1,250-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site that is a 14,000-square-foot wooden temple built on stilts on a mountainside — without a single nail. Talk about complex joinery! I mean, they really nailed it (groan all you want, I just told you how much I love dad jokes!). The breathtaking and sweeping views of Kyoto above + giant golden Buddha inside + detailed woodworking = a dream. Like, literally. It was so beautiful, chances are ~75% that this was all a collective dream with me and my family.

My man, with his heart of gold, in front of Kinkakuji, AKA the Golden Pavilion

Finally, there was Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, a(nother!) World Heritage Site covered in gold leaf and neatly perched in the middle of a picturesque pond. We also went to Nara Park — located in the neighboring prefecture, it includes 1,200 acres of yet more stunning temples…but also hundreds of free-roaming deer (they will get up in your business, so have your deer food and phone camera ready). All in all? An amazing trip. Perhaps you’d consider one of your own to Japan — and if you do, send me a postcard.

Deer god, I love Japan. NOTE: We checked for ticks afterwards, don’t worry.

Ready to Read This Article?

Love this FREE article on our FREE website?
To keep reading all our content — for FREE — sign up for our FREE weekly email.
You're welcome.

Please enter a valid email address.

Already have an account ?