I don’t know if it’s an adage, but I always say that if you want to book an acting gig, plan a vacation and get really excited to go on it, and then you’ll book a job right during that time.
So, for me, the only really fail-safe way I can plan a trip is during the holidays. Because of this, I’ve actually done Christmas in Kyoto twice. The first time was when I was 25 or 26, and I went on a trip with my family—my brother, my mom, my dad, and me. My dad used to live in Japan, and my whole life I dreamed about being able to go with him and have him show us around, so that was awesome.
One of my favorite memories is walking around the streets of Kyoto, down Pontocho Alley, with my brother. It’s one of the most magical little places to go barhopping in the world. Everywhere we went, people would see us and say, “Happy Merry Christmas!” I think they may have thought that “Merry Christmas” was the holiday, so it would be the proper custom to say to foreigners, “Happy Merry Christmas.” It was very sweet. But anyway, Kyoto is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. If you didn’t already think that sober, try having a few shots of sake and then looking at it. I wouldn’t say we got wrecked, but we made quite merry, and I do have a song on my album called “Drunk on Christmas,” so…
Several years later, I took my wife, Mia, to Japan. We visited Tokyo and Kyoto, and we added a ski trip, which is a big thing in my life. Anytime I revisit a place, I want to do something that I’m familiar with but also experience something new. The skiing there was really fabulous, and it was insanely beautiful. At the end of the day, you have some hot sake or a hot bowl of ramen, and then you have an onsen—a bath in the hot springs—and you’re just like, “This is a level of wonderful that I highly recommend to people from all over the world.”
Now, I’m a crazy itinerary guy. I love planning travel. I’m pretty proud that my wife and I can turn 10 days into about three months. To me, a vacation is a thrill ride where every day there’s a new adventure. In Japan, there were so many different things that we got ourselves into, from driving around the night streets of Shibuya in go-karts dressed as characters from Mario Kart to making our own kimonos to learning how to do ukiyo-e, the traditional wood-block printing. We did some Airbnb Experiences that were really something, including a tea ceremony with a couple who had both trained as tea masters. They had this beautiful little home outside of Tokyo, and we had a wonderful lunch with them and their children and shared stories. These are the kinds of things that I think are just—mwah!—chef’s kiss! If you’re as painfully affable as my wife and I are, when you meet people through experiences like this you sometimes end up getting dinner and drinks with them and having a night on the town. It’s a great way to involve yourself in the local scene.
On Christmas day, we were at a ryokan in Kyoto, and it was just magic. We didn’t bring big gifts with us—I think being there with each other was gift enough. The holidays are about who you’re with. Here we were in a country whose commercial and spiritual systems aren’t defined by years and years of Christmas, but it was something we could still hold in our hearts and bring to another place. We just had to say “Happy Merry Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
Darren Criss spent quarantine learning to read and speak Japanese, and he can’t wait to return to Japan. Until then, catch him on tour this month in support of his new holiday album, A Very Darren Crissmas.