Oh Japan, where do I even begin?!
I can't believe it has been it was last fall that I headed across the Pacific for Tokyo. So first off, I should tell you it was one of the top 10 trips I have ever taken, maybe even top 5. To put it differently, it rained every single day of the trip and it still was amazing, that is how much I loved Tokyo and Kyoto. So here are the details.
I travelled with three other girlfriends; the timing worked out perfectly that we all could take a week off. It also worked out perfectly that we travelled well together - that was a total gamble and it paid off.
The first stop of our trip was Tokyo. My first impression of Tokyo is how quiet it was. I must have sounded like a crazy person because I kept saying that I could not believe how quiet Tokyo was. I know that is a weird observation but most major cities I have lived in and traveled to are loud but Tokyo was quiet - absolutely no honking what so ever. It was totally refreshing.
The biggest standout from the whole trip - was how nice and hospitable everyone was. The Japanese people are the most helpful and thoughtful people which was incredibly refreshing especially when you are trying to navigate a new city in a completely foreign language.
We stayed at the Park Hotel in Tokyo, which was great - it was not high end glamorous but did the job - it was clean and somewhat affordable.
Our first full day there we woke up at 4am with jet lag and decided to try to get sumo tickets because our trip coincided with a sumo tournament. Sadly we could not snag tickets but got to see a couple sumo wrestler en route to the tournament. It was amazing - we were getting on the subway and there were a bunch of the professional sumo wrestlers commuting on the train in their sumo outfits. From there we went to explore Shibuya crossing - which is basically this crazy crosswalk in the middle of Tokyo. I grabbed this video and it doesn't do it justice. It is madness!
From there we wandered to have lunch at our first ramen experience at Afuri Ebisu. The style of ramen at Afuri is made with a yuzu broth (yuzu is a type of citrus) and it is out of this world delicious. Just thinking about it right now makes me want a bowl (or 10).
And the best part is that you order from a vending machine. Some poor Japanese woman had to help us because we had no idea how to do it. But it worked and it was delicious. (for those of you wondering, you put your money in, press what type of ramen you want, then it gives you a ticket to give to the cooks at the counter, ramen isn't dispensed from the vending machine, thankfully because that could be a little gross).
After our ramen we walked back to Harajuku - the area in Tokyo which is know for its eccentric colors, people and costumes....and their love of crepes.
While we were there we stopped in the department store Tokyo Hands which has just about anything and everything you could ever want or dream of. I definitely recommend checking that place out. But be warned that it is totally overwhelming.
After Harajuku we walked the Meji Shrine with is located in a huge forest in the middle of Tokyo. Within the shrine there is a wishing tree where people write all their wishes.
From there we had our first encounter with an Isetan food court. When I say food court I know it conjures up images of a Sabarro and a Panda Express but the food courts in malls/department stores in Japan are some of the most amazing food experiences I have ever seen. Every type of food was available as well as fresh fish, fresh sushi and really expensive fruits and vegetables.
After Isetan we went to the Golden Gai neighborhood of Tokyo. Everyone recommend the Robot Bar but one look at it, we decided no way. I can't even describe it - it is some sort of dinner performance show that looks like it is from the future - neon lights and all. Plus it costs about $80- per person so we said no way. We grabbed a drink in Golden Gai which admittedly was overpriced and not worth it but we were in a touristy part of town. From there we had our first official sushi meal of the trip at a place called Sushi Zanmai . I quickly learned that there is delicious sushi all over Tokyo and you didn't need to go to the fancy expensive spots to get it. Sushi Zanmai was delicious and most importantly totally affordable.
The next morning we got up and hopped on the bullet train to Kyoto. One of the things I loved about Japan (well at least in the places that we went) is the efficiently (yes I am a dork like that). There was a train time table and it left the station at the very second it was supposed to leave. If you were 1 minute late, you missed the train. Snacks for the bullet train below, obviously.
The train to Kyoto from Japan is about 2 1/2 hours on the bullet train. The bullet train was lovely and clean and covered under the JR Pass. (One of my friends discovered the JR pass and it was amazing. Basically the JR pass is only sold to tourists and you have to buy it outside Japan, either online or in person at one of their offices in the US but it costs $300 and it allows you to take a lot of the subways and local trains for free and most importantly it covers the cost of the bullet train which is about $130 each way so it is totally worth it).
Once in Kyoto our first stop was the bamboo forrest. Well kind of, we first found an Isetan food court in Kyoto and had the most delicious sushi and tempura before heading to the bamboo forrest. The bamboo forest and the area surrounding it was magical.
It was lightly raining and their was fog all around and there was just something so lush and magical about the whole area surrounding the forrest, not to mention the gorgeous bamboo.
After the forrest we checked into our Air BnB which we loved. Here is the listing and I completely recommend it. My only word of advice is that even thought the listing say it can accommodate 8 people, that is a stretch - 4 of us fit in their comfortably and I think 6 might be the max. But I completely recommend it. That night we went for more sushi and this time it had a conveyor belt! The sushi was fine but the conveyor belt was amazing! I think I need to install one in my house.
Day 2 in Kyoto was met with lots and lots of rain. I mean sideways typhoon rain. You can see how dark and dreary the weather was in the pictures below. We tried our best to see Kyoto and I think we hit most of, but not all of the sites. We had a fantastic matcha tea ceremony at XX and had burnt ramen that had come recommended. We strolled through Nikishi market, Pontocho alley and Entokuin Temple/Kodaiji temple - but the rain was kind of a total bummer but we persevered. We ended up at a sake bar that we loved and totally recommend -336 Sake Bar and had the most delicious soba noodle dinner at Sobanomi Yoshimura. We walked through Gion on the way home which is famously known for all of the geisha. Kyoto in general is know for their geshas but Gion is where they work and perform. Sadly I didn't spot a geisha but I did grab a bottle of Japanese whiskey that is delicious. I saw it in LA the other day for sale and wanted to buy it as a birthday gift and it was marked up over 200%. If you spot Hibiki Whiskey anywhere and it is somewhat affordable, grab it, because it is delicious!
The next morning we woke up and hopped back on a bullet train and headed to Hakone, an area in between Kyoto and Tokyo known for its hot springs and ryokans. Ryokans are Japanese bed and breakfasts where guests sleep on traditional futons on the floor. While we were waiting for our hotel to be ready we went to an onsen, a Japanese hot spring. It was an amazing experience but if you are going to go to a public onsen know that it is not for the shy. I would suggest googling it before you go, just to mentally prepare yourself. I will leave it at that. (Hint: lots of naked strangers)
Our ryokan was lovely and the meal they prepared for us was traditional and delicious, only a couple parts were scary foods that we didn't know what they were. Dinner is served in your room and then after dinner they clear away all the furniture and pull down futons for everyone to sleep in. No one gets their own room - all of the beds are lined up like sardines and you all sleep together. However that night I am pretty sure I had the best night sleep ever - we kept the windows open and heard the sound of the rain all night long.
From Hakone we hopped back on the train and went back to Tokyo. We caught a cocktail tasting that afternoon at Gen Yamamoto which was really interesting. It a tasting menu of 4 (small) cocktails that the bartender creates for you.
From there we walked over to the Ripongi neighborhood and had traditional tonkatsu at a place called Butagumi. It was delicious. Normally I am not usually a big pork person but tonkatsu is pork that is battered and fried and it was surprisingly really tasty. We ended up at the hotel bar that night which apparently was really well know for their whiskey assortment. I like whiskey but it is not something I normally order but Japanese whisky is becoming well know for its deliciousness so we thought we needed to become more educated about it. I can't say that we were more educated after the bar that night but we did taste some whiskey.
We woke up the next morning and headed to the fish market. One of the friends in our group got up really early and went to Sushi Dai. Sushi Dai is supposed to be the best sushi and it is fresh at the fish market. I decided to skip it, mostly because I didn't want to wait in line. I think she waited 4 hours. Crazy! In the end however the sushi was delicious - so if you are up for the line, you should check it out.
Overall I had mixed feelings about the fish market. I think it is really important to see but you also see how much fish and seafood are coming into the market everyday and going out to be eaten. it is kind of astonishing. They also have the tuna auction which we missed but that too I am not sold on, mostly because tuna is being overfished and is full of mercury. BUT for the record I did eat tuna during the trip and even had it at the fish market.
After the fish market we walked to the Imperial Palace in the center of Tokyo - you can't enter it but is a gorgeous park in the center of the largest city on earth. And yes it was quiet. I still haven't gotten over that.
From there we hoped on the subway and headed to the Otomesanso neighborhood which is very quiet and residential. We went to a cute linen store I had read about on Fog Linen Work and had cream puffs at Totoro.
That evening we decided to splurge and get seats at the Mandarin Oriental Tapas Bar which specialized in molecular gastronomy. I know what you re thinking Tapas bar in Tokyo? Well I would use tapas pretty lightly here - mostly just small plates. So here is the thing, I am not huge into the molecular gastronomy trend but I was blown away by this meal. It was delicious, interesting and the chef walks you through each course (There were 16!!) The dinner is a little pricy, but totally worth the splurge. Here is a snap chat recording that I took:
On our last day we were met with even more rain. Sideways, upside down rain which kind of put a damper on our last day. However we did have another sushi meal at Sushi Zanmai, spent some more time in the Isetan food court obviously, checked out another equally amazing mall XX to escape the rain and had one of the best meals/bowls of ramen at Ippudo Ramen before hopping on our flight.
Japan I have completely fallen in love with you! I can't wait to go back and explore the rest of the country....and eat never ending bowls of ramen.
If you are planning a trip to Japan anytime soon, here are some things that really helped us:
First definitely look into the JR pass. You have to buy it outside of Japan so make sure to look into it before you go.
Also don't be afraid to eat the food at 7-11 - they have a delicious assortment of Japanese snacks and their seems to be a 7-11 on every corner there.
Rent a Pocket Wifi device -this was a Godsend. You rent them at the airport and carry them around in your bag all day, sync your phone to it and you have wifi access anywhere you go.
Star places and restaurants in Google Maps - before I left I saved a number of restuaratrns and sites that I wanted to visit in Japan into Google Maps and then sync'd it with my phone. By doing that every time I pulled up the map, I knew if I was close to a restaurant I wanted to eat at. Always thinking about food obviously.