Expectations vs. Reality: Why I Didn’t Love Japan’s Tourist Trail

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We can all be a victim of our own expectations sometimes, and for me, that was my trip to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka in a nutshell. I had been dreaming about visiting Japan for YEARS, and my bucket list was out of control.

Living in China, I could practically taste Japan it was so close. But every time I tried to buy a ticket, the prices were astronomical due to the Chinese holidays. When I finally had a chance to visit after years and years of dreaming, I was so excited I could hardly contain myself.

Japan's Tourist Trail

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The Japan Plan: Mie, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka

My plan was to spend two weeks hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji first and then spend almost three weeks exploring Japan’s most popular tourist cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.

I had dreams of geisha spotting in Gyon, hiking Fushimi Inari, wandering around Harajuku, eating my way through Osaka, checking out the Golden Pavillion, munching on conveyor belt sushi, rocking out at the Robot Restaurant, grabbing a drink at Golden Gai and getting drunk food at Piss Alley, petting deer in Nara, exploring Himeiji Castle… you name it.

My Japan bucket list for these three cities was neverending. I’d read so many blog posts, my Pinterest board has years-worth of pins, and I was beyond excited.

Kumano Kodo Iseji

Hiking stunning mountain passes

Hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji Through Mie Prefecture

While I was super excited to visit the touristy side of Japan, I was beyond nervous to spend two-weeks hiking through Mie Prefecture along the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route. I’d never done a long-term hike before, and the idea of a 170 km pilgrimage was more than a little daunting.

At first, I suffered a bit of culture shock, trying to adjust myself to Mie Prefecture’s strict traditional customs. I dove head-first into the waters of Japanese culture, and it definitely took a few days to get used to all of the new traditions. Chris and I joked that we constantly felt like barbarians… bulls in a China Japan shop.

Shinto Shrine

Praying at a Shinto Shrine

Exploring a Different Side of Japan

But after a few days of hiking with our new Japanese friends, we felt like pros!

We learned how to bow appropriately at Shinto shrines, give a proper offering, and how you’re supposed to walk on the edge of the path because the center is reserved for the gods. We learned how to properly wash at an onsen, and how to take off our shoes backward while stepping up onto the clean floor.

We spent every night sleeping on a tatami mat floor and learned how to make the bed ourselves. We memorized countless Japanese phrases and said “konichiwa” and “ohio gozaimas” to everyone we met with a bow.

Uo-Machi

Locals showing us around Uo-Machi Fishing Village

We ate fresh sashimi, cheap tempura udon, and traditional ryokan breakfasts and dinners. We spent our evenings with ryokan owners who didn’t speak a word of English and rented a few rooms out of their lovely wooden homes. We met the owner of a sake brewery that showed us the farm where he grows his own rice.

We listened to a woman sing a traditional Japanese folk song while sitting on top of a mountain pass with a view of the ocean. We had a Japanese BBQ at a campsite by a crystal-clear river and listened to old records with an Airbnb host in his tiny speakeasy attic room.

In short, we had an incredible, immersive experience, and it completely ruined Japan’s tourist trail for me.

Golden Pavilion

I had to battle for this photo

How Mie Prefecture Ruined Japan’s Tourist Trail

Going off the beaten path FIRST is never a good idea. After the magic of the Kumano Kodo Iseji, I really struggled to enjoy Japan’s most famous sights.

I couldn’t figure out what it was. I lived in China for five years, so I’m no stranger to tourists and crowds. But I will say that the level of international tourism in Japan really did shock me, especially after having so much of Mie Prefecture all to myself.

Everyone always writes about how much they love Japan, and it’s no different for me. I LOVE Japan. I couldn’t get enough of Mie Prefecture, and I’d love to go back and rent a little house in Kyoto.

But when it comes to Japan’s tourist trail, I really think the Kumano Kodo Iseji ruined it for me. Here’s Why:

Kumano Hayatam Taisha

Kumano Hayatama Taisha!

1. Meiji Shrine Ruined by Ise Jingu and Hayatama Taisha

To be honest, I was a bit shrined-out after hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji, but I decided to head to Meiji Shrine anyway since I was already in the area.

When I first arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes. No one was bowing at any of the torii gates, people were walking down the center of the path, and there were just SO MANY PEOPLE inside. After two weeks of painstakingly following all of the religious practices and Shinto traditions, seeing the crowds at Meiji shrine was actually shocking.

Shinto shrine

Wash your hands before you pray

For me, Ise Jingu and Kumano Hayatama Taisha, are just as beautiful and majestic as Meiji, but without all the crowds. However, my favorite shrine was actually the small, local shrine my Airbnb host took me to one morning in a quiet, farming neighborhood.

Shinto shrines are absolutely beautiful, but the most stunning aspect is definitely their connection with nature. Because of this, they’re best observed in quiet. It can be hard to appreciate the spiritual aspect of the shrine’s connection with nature when you’re surrounded by tourists clambering for a photo.

tuna sashimi Japan

The BEST tuna sashimi in Mie

2. Tsukiji Fish Market Ruined by Mie’s Sashimi

One of the things I was most excited for in Japan was the fresh seafood. However, after weeks of hiking along Mie Prefecture and eating incredible, affordable fish, it was hard to see why I should have to pay over $30 USD for a small plate of sashimi at the Tsukiji Fish Market.

While I expected the cities to be a bit more expensive than Mie Prefecture, it’s a bit shocking to see the prices in action. The conveyor belt sushi in Tokyo was extremely expensive compared to the fresh sashimi donburi bowls I had on Mie’s coast, and nowhere near as delicious.

Eventually, I just gave up on having fresh fish all the time and opted for more affordable meals of ramen, udon, and curry, all of which were great. However, I couldn’t help but miss my affordable, incredible fish in Mie.

Binshiyama

Chilling on the Elephant’s Back

3. Mie’s Hiking Ruined Nikko Too

Nikko had always been on our Tokyo itinerary with its beautiful mountains, temples, and waterfalls. But after two weeks of hiking literal mountains, a trip to Nikko just didn’t make sense anymore.

What was Nikko but a more-crowded Mie Prefecture? What temples were we going to see in Nikko that we hadn’t already seen in Mie? What waterfalls could be better than the ones we spotted along the Kumano Kodo Iseji?

I’d paddle boarded down a crystal clear river, hiked to the top of the Elephant’s Back with a view of the ocean, slept on tatami mat floors with stunning lake views… what could Nikko offer but the same scenery with more people?

Harajuku crowd

WOW the crowds at Harajuku

4. The Crowds EVERYWHERE

After two weeks of walking through Mie Prefecture’s countryside, strolling through towns where we bowed and said hello to each person individually, the tourist crowds were a shock to my system.

Asakusa, the Golden Pavilion, Harajuku… every place we visited was packed wall-to-wall with tourists. I made the mistake of visiting Harajuku on a Saturday, and I could barely even move there were so many people on the main street. I can’t even imagine what the area is like in high season. I was there in December!

While I’m used to crowds after living in China for five years, I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding them. I also think that after weeks of hiking through rural Japan, jumping straight into Tokyo was probably not the smartest idea.

Robot Restaurant

The Robot Restaurant is super cool though.

5. Surrounded by Other International Tourists

When I travel in China, I’m typically surrounded by Chinese tourists. Even the most touristy places in Beijing and Shanghai are packed to the brim with locals from around the country. But on Japan’s tourist trail, I barely saw any Japanese tourists, with the exception of Asakusa’s shopping street and school groups at Fushimi Inari.

If the Robot Restaurant was in China, you can bet the entire place would be packed with domestic tourists. But surrounded by other white people watching Japanese performers dance in crazy costumes riding robots that spit fire, something felt off.

Osaka Dotonbori

Fun fact: Osaka’s Dotonbori is actually full of Chinese tourists.

If you go to a show in NYC, you’ll be surrounded by American tourists. If you head to a kung fu performance in Beijing, the entire thing will be in Chinese. But in Japan, it was as if this Robot Restaurant show was aimed at white English-speaking international tourists.

So where are all the Japanese tourists? They were taking photos in the fall leaves at Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto or wandering around Ise’s shopping street in Mie. They certainly weren’t out in force on the Japanese tourist trail.

Himeji Castle

Himeji was actually super empty

Resetting My Expectations

After over a week of feeling mild disappointment, I knew I needed to reset my expectations.

Yes, Mie Prefecture was absolutely wonderful, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Tokyo.

Here I was, going to all of the bucket-list tourist locations and complaining about the crowds. I read English blog after blog about a place, only to be shocked that it was full of white tourists.

Ryoan-ji Temple

Getting away from the tourists at Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto

I wasn’t surprised to find tons of international tourists at the Grand Palace in Bangkok or the night markets in Chiang Mai, so why is Japan different?

I might’ve been in the wrong frame of mind after hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji, and I may have built up my expectations far too high after reading blog post after blog post about how AMAZING every single place in Japan is.

Why do none of these posts mention the crowds? The pushing and shoving? The mad rush to get a photo? Well… I am now.

Nara deer

I loved Nara and its deer!

What I Should’ve Done Differently

After a week or two in Japan, I realized I’d need to do things differently if I wanted to get the most out of my trip. I started adjusting my expectations, reminding myself that these places are on the beaten path. I woke up early to have places to myself and took the advice of locals and fellow travelers when it came to getting off the beaten path.

And you know what? It worked wonders.

Through this experience, I definitely learned a few things I should’ve done differently from the start:

Piss Alley

Finally getting my BBQ at Piss Alley

1. I Should’ve Done More Research

If I did my research I would’ve known that Golden Gai and Piss Alley are basically closed on Sunday night. I could’ve known that Harajuku is a madhouse on the weekends. I should’ve known how big Tokyo is, and how far my hotels were from the places I wanted to go. That way I wouldn’t have spent HOURS of my life on the subway every single day.

Through my lack of planning,  I ended up with a mob scene at Harajuku, and after heading all the way into Shinjuku for the Robot Restaurant, I was left with nothing to do after our early show since Piss Alley and Golden Gai were completely closed.

On my last day in Tokyo, I went back to see Harajuku on a weekday, explored hipster Cat Street, and then spent the evening in Golden Gai and Piss Alley and I had a great time. Why? Because I did some research and actually planned a route that made sense.

Harajuku

We bought this epic outfit in Harajuku for Chris’ niece

2. I Should’ve Made a Strict Itinerary

After hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji, all I wanted to do was relax and explore Tokyo, so I specifically didn’t make a very strict itinerary. I had plenty of free time and not much I wanted to see. However, I should’ve planned my activities around the two hotels I was staying at.

The Park Hotel Tokyo is much closer to Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Harajuku, while Andon Ryokan is near Akhibara and Asakusa. Through lack of planning, I ended up booking a Context Akhibara tour while staying at Park Hotel, which meant I explored Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Harajuku while staying a solid hour away.

I went to the Shinjuku and Harajuku neighborhoods TWICE while staying at Adon, and I wasted hours of my life on the subway that I can never get back. Had I paid attention and actually created an itinerary, I would’ve saved myself from hours of subway commutes.

Cat Street

Vintage clothes on Cat Street

3. I Should’ve Gotten off the Beaten Path

Like Kate said in her recent post about the biggest mistakes NYC tourists make, you won’t enjoy New York if you spend all day going to museums, or spend your entire trip in Manhattan. Japan is the same. You won’t enjoy your trip if you spend the entire time checking sights off your bucket list.

My favorite memories from Tokyo are walking along Cat Street, where all the hipsters hang out. Eating my way through Shimbashi, where all the salarymen get drunk in restaurants under the subway. I loved exploring Harajuku’s side streets where I bought an epic rainbow cat shirt and drank spiked hot chocolate next to two tables of Lolitas.

Kamishichiken

Geisha spotting in Kamishichiken

I had the best geisha spotting in history by avoiding Gion and heading to Kamishichiken, where the geishas walk from their okiya to the teahouses nearby. I must’ve spotted over 10 geishas and maiko within 30 minutes, and no one else was there to see them except Chris and I.

Save Cat Cafe Osaka

FIVE CATS on my legs.

I loved visiting a cat cafe full of rescue cats in a local neighborhood of Osaka, and taking Yuki’s epic food tour along the longest shopping street in all of Japan, where we drank sake and chatted with drunk businessmen as Yuki translated.

The old female owner kept calling Chris Santa Claus because of his beard, and the whole bar laughed along.

Chicken Sashimi

Wow! Chicken Sashimi

We tried chicken sashimi and pufferfish, and ate Michelin guide listed takoyaki from a tiny hidden stall, all thanks to Yuki’s guidance.

If you want to enjoy Japan, look for the special places that not every tourist goes. Take a tour with a local, and advice from expats. It will save your trip.

Fushimi Inari

You have to wake up early for this

4. I Should’ve Woken Up Earlier

You know those beautiful pictures of Arishiyama and Fushimi Inari? Yeah, you better wake up early!

I made the mistake of visiting Arishiyama and the Golden Pavilion in the late morning and afternoon and both were so packed that it was a major struggle to get any sort of decent photo. I was lucky that I managed to find a path in Arishiyama that wasn’t super crowded so I could enjoy the magic, but it paled in comparison to the bamboo forests I hiked through on the Kumano Kodo Iseji.

Fushimi Inari foxes

I love these little foxes

When it came time to see Fushimi Inari, I wasn’t going to let the crowds ruin my experience. I woke up at 6:45 AM and made it to the temple by 7:15. While I didn’t have the place completely to myself, I did get to experience the magic of hiking for an hour through torri gate after torii gate without getting mobbed by people.

I explored graves covered in fox statues dressed in litte red outfits, as stray kittens jumped from shrine to shrine. I waved good morning to locals drinking tea on top of the mountain.

As I left around 8:45 the crowds were rolling in and I was SO thankful I woke up early.

Golden Pavilion Ticket

Why don’t I have more pictures of how crowded this place was?

5. I Should’ve Known Popular Places Would Be Crowded

None of Japan’s famous attractions are overrated. They’re famous for a reason. However, because they’re famous, they’re also VERY CROWDED.

Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka are definitely on the beaten path in the same way you’d find Bangkok or NYC. Japan is tourist friendly, safe, and accessible. It has amazing food, nice hotels, beautiful temples, and a magical culture. Why wouldn’t it be popular?

Dotonbori

Wait… other tourists are at Dotonbori??!

I Wanted to be a Special Snowflake

I guess after living in China, I thought the crowds wouldn’t bother me. I thought I could go from sight to sight, surrounded by other international tourists, and have no issue.

But after five years of living in China, I was also used to being one of the only international tourists. While China’s sights aren’t off the beaten path for the Chinese, they’re still fairly off the beaten path to Western tourists.

After two weeks of hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji, it was a rude awakening to become just another annoying international tourist, and I didn’t like the feeling one bit. I was used to being “special” when I traveled, and on Japan’s tourist trail, I definitely wasn’t.

Osaka Food Tour

Take Yuki’s Osaka Tour and befriend random people in bars

How I’ll Fix My Mistakes Next Time Around

Now that I’ve seen all the touristy sites in Tokyo and Kyoto, I’d love to go back and explore these cities off the beaten path. I want to rent an apartment or get into house sitting, make local friends, find cheap restaurants, and explore the cities like a local.

I’ll also wake up early to visit Arishiyama and the Golden Pavillion, spend some more time in Kamishichiken, and head back to that local neighborhood in Osaka.

Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with these three cities. Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka are awesome. You just need to plan your schedule, do your research, and get off the beaten path to truly enjoy them… a lesson I learned a little later than I would’ve liked.

Kumano Shi

Exploring a cave by boat in Kumano City

Get Off Japan’s Beaten Path

I know we all want to see Japan’s most famous tourist sights (I know I did!), but the best advice I can give you is to actually get off Japan’s beaten path.

You don’t have to spend two-weeks hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji like I did, but you can definitely take a trip down to Ise or Kumano City. Explore empty temples, eat cheap fresh seafood, hike a mountain, go scuba diving, explore the “Monster’s Castle” cave, or stay in a cabin on the lake.

Kumano Kodo Iseji

I went paddle boarding on this river!

Head to Wakayama and visit the Kumano Sanzan. Go to Koyasan. Rent a room in an Airbnb and stay with a local family in the countryside. Sleep on a tatami mat floor in a ryokan. Lay on the beach in Okinawa.

Just pick one place you haven’t heard of a million times and go. Trust me, it’ll be the best decision you’ve ever made.

What Do You Think?

What do you think? Did you feel the same way in Japan, or am I being ridiculous? Let me know in the comments! 

Also, if you have any questions about how to plan a trip to Japan the right way (without drowning in tourist crowds), leave me a message below. I’m always online checking for new comments so if you have a question, ask below and I’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as possible!

Japan's Tourist Trail

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About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

22 comments on “Expectations vs. Reality: Why I Didn’t Love Japan’s Tourist Trail

  1. Loved your comparison of being a tourist in Japan vs. China. I felt the exact same way when we went to Italy. It was complete culture shock to be mobbed by International tourists, and we definitely were not special anymore. Your posts have actually been making me want to go to Japan! It’s never been high on my list for some reason. I’ve heard Japan is really expensive compared to China, is that true? Any tips for traveling there on a budget?

    • Yeah its so weird to go from being a “special” international tourist to just one of a massive group. I can definitely imagine Italy would be the same way, especially in places like Venice. I went as a kid so I didn’t really notice, but I’m sure I’d feel the same way now. As for Japan, you should definitely go. Housing and food can be a bit pricey, but temples and many activities are completely free. If you go, I definitely recommend getting off the beaten path a bit. I’m sure you’d love Mie prefecture where Chris and I did the Kumano Kodo. There are also plenty of less-touristy places you can visit. Do Fushimi Inari really early in the morning, and then spend your time in the less popular places and you’ll save money and really enjoy yourself. If you really want to save money go for ramen and small restaurants where you can order from a machine. Accommodation is just expensive in Japan, so if there are two of you, it usually pays to get a small hotel room rather than a hostel dorm. I hope this helps!

  2. I really liked the honesty in this post! I did love Japan but definitely with the experience you had in Mie Prefecture and the difference when heading to the more touristy locations, it made perfect sense why you felt a bit disappointed. Good tips for future travelers or if you go back again!

    • Thanks so much! I agree, I think if I didn’t go to Mie first, I still would’ve been shocked by all the tourists, but not quite so much. I definitely did the trip the opposite of what I should have!

  3. Oh wow! Thank you sooooo much for this detailed post. I’m planning for a trip to Japan next year in February and thinking of covering the tourist trail (Tokyo – Osaka – Kyoto) as well as attending the Snow Festival in Sapporo. I’m so glad to find tons of useful information from your blog post. Not sure if there will still be crowds in Feb but I will try to look at Japan in a different way :)

    • I’m so glad this post helped you with your trip! Just make sure you plan out Tokyo really well to minimize subway time, be sure to go to Harajuku on a weekday. Don’t go to Piss Alley and Golden Gai on a Sunday. Also for Arishiyama, the Golden Pavilion, and Fushimi Inari you’ll want to wake up early. Go to Kamishichiken around 5pm to see the Geishas (we saw them all around 5:15-5:45), and definitely do Yuki’s Inside Osaka tour!

  4. Wait, I need to visit Mie after your post! Have never heard about it before! I’ve been to Tokyo quite a few times, and Kyoto once. The crowd level in Tokyo is increasing year after year, all the more when it’s building up for Olympics soon. Now I have one more place in mind, as soon as I check where Mie is! =D

    • You should definitely go to Mie! I hiked the Kumano Kodo Iseji for 2 weeks there, but I also did a ton of other stuff along the route. I’ll be writing a post on it all soon, but you can do so many things there. There are some very nice day hikes, including some big ones like Yakiyama and Binshiyama. You can also go snorkeling and scuba diving, you can stay on a campsite and swim in the crystal-clear river (in the summer when it’s warm). They have paddleboarding, cool caves, great airbnb homestays, and you can even take a boat out on the ocean to see all the cool rock formations by Kumano City!

  5. I feel you. Seeing perfect pictures in blogs and FB sets up an unrealistic expectation! I’ll show this to my boyfriend because he’s also crazy about visiting the tourist trail in Japan. We also prefer places with small crowds.

    • Yeah I think I just got swept up in all of the blog posts I found on Pinterest talking about how AMAZING everything in Japan is without any advice or tips on how to avoid the crowds. The tourist trail in Japan is great, but you really have to get a bit off the beaten path otherwise you’ll go crazy!

  6. This was a really interesting read! I went to Tokyo (and Tokyo alone) last year and really liked it. We did go on the tourist trail and I agree, it was very crowded. I did think though that it was more organised chaos than other megacities I’ve been to (NYC and Shanghai). I didn’t do certain things though, like the Robot Restaurant cause it felt a bit off, like you said. I’d love to go back to Japan one day and tour more of the country, especially Hokkaido.

    • I’ve heard great things about Hokkaido! I agree, I think I just didn’t do enough research, and it was a bit of a shock to my system after having everything to myself for two weeks straight. I’d love to go back to Tokyo and explore outside of the touristy places with a little more planning. A solid hour each way on the subway three days in a row certainly didn’t help!

  7. So many good points in here! Heading back to Japan for a couple months this spring and definitely planning to spend a week or so playing tourist in Tokyo, so these tips are SUPER helpful! Bookmarking this for planning times. <3

    • Thanks so much Mel! I definitely wish more people were realistic about the crowds in Japan so I would’ve known what to expect. Definitely go to Kamishichiken to see Geishas (I believe I saw them all around 5:15-5:45pm) and avoid Harajuku on the weekends! Definitely also check out Yuki’s Osaka food tour if you go there. It was worth every penny.

  8. There are minute details to the culture and traditions in Japan and there is no doubt in that. Japanese are said to attach a lot of value to their dining table manners and behavior. But, don’t be shocked if this mannerism doesn’t match up to yours. In most of the countries, popular table manners usually demand people to eat in silence. But in Japan, it is considered impolite for you to not slurp loudly when you are eating noodles. When you are eating a bowl, it is considered polite to lift it up close to your mouth.

    • I definitely agree, which is part of the reason I loved the Kumano Kodo so much. While it took us a few days to get used to these new traditions, learning about other cultures is an incredible experience. The reason why I didn’t love Japan’s tourist trail doesn’t have anything to do with the mannerisms not matching up to mine, but rather the crowds of tourists not necessarily respecting or honoring Japanese traditions.

  9. Hey, not many will write about the raw truth and I am go glad you poured your heart out. it’s so good to stumble upon an article that doesnt aim to please readers but document an honest opinion. Kudos to you but this should and I know it will not deter the wanderlust in you. Keep exploring and keep guiding.

    • Thanks so much Isabella! I definitely think that Japan is incredible, but the touristy parts have been over-glamorized. I definitely want to get back to Japan and explore those cities like a local, and get off the beaten path again like I did in Mie.

  10. Harajuku is always a madhouse :P I went in the morning, evening, weekday, weekend and it was always as packed as in your photo… maybe it was the cherry blossom season. To each cute cafe you had to queue for an hour or two. I was amazed how crowded Japan has become comparing with my last visit 4 years ago!

    • Wow really? I went back on a weekday during the day and it was totally fine, granted- I was there in December and it was freezing. It’s a shame how things just become completely overrun with tourists, but there are always tons of great hidden gems that haven’t been discovered :D

  11. I just come back from a 3 weeks solo trip in Japan. Basically I go there almost every year in the last 5 years from US, my feeling about Tokyo is getting worse.

    I would say not only everywhere in Tokyo is super packed with international tourists, the customer service in many shops (department store, convenient stores, etc) is also getting very bad too.

    The rest of Japan is really much better than the tourists trail. However, I do highly recommend travellers to do more research on Japanese etiquette, custom and language before going off the beaten path.

    • Wow it’s sad to think what tourism might be doing to Tokyo and other places in Japan. I would say I was definitely in for a shock when I started with Mie Prefecture, only because I had to really be careful to follow all of the traditions and customs, and I kind of felt like a barbarian half the time! hahaha. At least by the end of the two weeks I was an expert at onsens and taking my shoes off backwards.

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