Kyoto, Japan

Continuing on from my TokyoHakone posts…Day 6 marked our arrival in Kyoto, Japan.  Kyoto, the old capital, is full of religious sites and quaint neighborhoods.

Type of Trip: Self Planned – Part III: Kyoto (4 days, after Tokyo and Hakone)

Hotel: Guesthouse Sanjyotakakura Hibiki – very simple guest house in an AWESOME location (prepay via paypal), booked through Booking.com

Transport: JR Railpass (Odawara to Kyoto on Shinkansen Bullet Train), then taxi to guesthouse

  1. DAY 1: Arrive in Kyoto in mid-afternoon.  Our hotel was simple but the location was fabulous.  Lots of little bakeries, coffee shops and boutiques.  I tend to prefer spending less on hotels during vacations, as we are never in them.  Location is preferable for me.
    • Samurai show and class!  Based on one of my client’s recommendations, we signed up for a show and full-costume lesson at the Kembu Theater.  Worth every penny.  The show was entertaining and showed us a glimpse into traditional samurai culture.  Afterwards, we got to pick our “costume” and learn a simple routine to perform.  The teachers were patient and funny – they took pictures and video with our phones.  Seriously so fun.img_7742
  2. DAY 2: Tour eastern Kyoto by foot – the best way to explore.  The trains are not as accessible, compared to Tokyo, so we ended up taking cabs a lot.
    • Fushimi inari taisha: the famous red gateway of the Shinto (God of rice) shrine.  The torii gates are a beautiful work of art, though I am terrible with crowds and this one was slammed with people.  That made the whole experience rather
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      Torii Gates at the Shinto Shrine

      claustrophobic for me.  My recommendation is to GO EARLY (we went around 11am).  Another observation, the area surrounding these sites offer tons of kimono-rental shops…so you see hundreds of foreigners dressed in traditional kimono dress.

    • Kiyomizu-dera Temple: the views of Kyoto are excellent from this spot (as it is at a higher elevation).  Too many people for my taste though.  Pick your arrival time wisely.
    • Shopping: in this whole area (Higashiyama), there are lots of cute shops selling tea sets, pottery, etc.  We spent a few hours exploring this part of “old Kyoto”.
    • Gion: the Geisha District.  I LOVED this neighborhood.  Lots of wood-paneled facades on the private tea houses, lanterns dimly lit in the evenings, excellent restaurants.  Walk down Shijo Avenue and then alongside the canal that runs parallel.  Go around dusk (6pm-ish) for the best chance to see a Geisha heading into one of her appointments.  We were lucky enough to see one in a taxi!
    • Though we didn’t go out after dinner, we did have a local bartender tell us that Pontecho Street is an excellent place for food and Kiyamachi Street for drinks.
  3. DAY 3: Continued exploring the sites in Western Kyoto.
    • Ryoanji Temple & Zen Gardens: This was a highlight of the trip.  We woke up early so as to arrive to the gardens by 8am, when it opens (we took a taxi).  fullsizerender-3It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.  Super peaceful and a great place to meditate and reflect.  The landscaping is something to be admired as well!
    • Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion): you can walk here from the gardens above.  Still a great idea to get there early – we arrived around 10:30am and there were tons of school tours.  Still enjoyable with the crowds though.  The pavilion is stunning, especially reflecting on the pond.  We stopped at the tea house here, paid 500 YEN to enjoy traditional matcha tea and a small cake.  fullsizerender-1
    • Arashiyama: the bamboo forest.  This place was super cool and a free tourist activity.  The overhead bamboo made you feel like you were walking through a fairy land.  It was crazy crowded by the time we got there though
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      Bamboo Forest

      (so a lot of sudden stopping when people decided to take a photo).  If you have an additional day, I would suggest doing this first thing that morning.

    • Togetsukyo Bridge: Walk over from the bamboo forest and check this out.  Magnificent views of the mountains and river.
    • Shiatsu massage: we needed massages after all the walking over the past week so we opted for a traditional massage, walking distance from our hotel.  We found this gem: Hiyoshido.  The women at the front were welcoming and the massage was fabulous – 90 minutes for 7,500 YEN (around $70 USD).  We were able to get the massages in the same room, as you wear traditional Japanese pajamas.  Totally worth it – we thought about gong back the next day for the 3 hour option!
    • Dinner: We were hoping to get a traditional kaiseki dinner (belated Thanksgiving celebration) but had trouble finding a restaurant that could accommodate us on the spot on a Friday evening.  We realized that this is because most of the restaurants are very small (sometimes just a bar) and the meal can take a few hours.  I suggest making a reservation in advance (this was the place we wanted to try but needed a reso: KARYO)  We ended up finding a place in Gion, and ordering the expensive chef’s selection.  I didn’t particularly care for the majority of the dishes, but we did try everything (including snails).  They brought out a sushi platter as one point with a lobster head on the plate.  It was still moving, which totally freaked us out.  Totally bizarre experience, but one that I was glad we tried. fullsizerender-4
  4. DAY 4: Depart back to airport
    • Our flight wasn’t until the evening, out of Tokyo…so we spent the morning walking and shopping in our neighborhood.  We bought silk kimono robes that I am pretty sure I live in 24/7 now.
    • Our reserved bullet train from Kyoto Station to Tokyo Station left around noon.  Easy commute to Tokyo Station with views of Mt. Fuji along the way (~2.5 hours).  Once at Tokyo Station, take the local train (5 or 6) to Hamamatsucho, then catch the Haneda Airport train (<1 hour).  The JP Railpass covers these trains too.

That’s it for our trip!  We departed on a morning flight on 11/17 and departed on an evening flight on 11/26.  It was the perfect amount of time to see everything we were hoping.

じゃあね (See ya, Japan!)

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Hakone, Japan

Continuing on from my Tokyo post…Day 3 marked our arrival in Hakone, Japan.  Hakone is famous for its relaxing onsen (Japanese hotsprings) and close proximity to the sacred Mt. Fuji.  We needed some downtime after all the commuting and chaos of urban Tokyo.  Hakone proved to be the exact oasis we were hoping for.

Type of Trip: Self Planned – Part II: Hakone (2 days, after Tokyo)

Hotel: Mount View Hakone – ryokan with private onsen (cash only), booked through Hotels.com

Transport: JR Railpass (Tokyo Station to Odawara on Shinkansen Bullet Train)

  1. DAY 1: Arrive in Hakone in mid-afternoon
    • Commute: First, we took the bullet train from Tokyo Station using our JR Railpass.  We got off at the Odawara stop (~45 min).  From there, exit the station to the bus stop (on the East side).  Take the Tozan Bus Route (“T”) to the “Sengokuhara-bunka-center-mae” stop (~1 hour).  It cost us around $10 USD. The buses are easy to navigate and the stops are shown in English in the front. If you are going to Hakone for 2-3 days total…I highly recommend getting the Hakone FreePass at the Odawara station.  This would cover that part of your transit (bus) and you will use it again for the tour loop.  
    • Ryokan – we reserved a Superior Twin room with a Tatami area (make sure to order the breakfast and dinner for at least one night – the “half board” option!).  The room was gorgeous and simple.  A separate big-claw bath in the room and traditional Japanese sleeping arrangements.  When you check in, they provide you with traditional Yukata (a casual kimono) to wear during your stay.  When you get the “half-board”, you also get one free private bath session for your room (45 min, great for couples).  Most go nude in the onsen…the water was SO hot, but completely relaxing!  The hotel also has a public onsen for women only, men only and coed.  You do not need a reservation for these and you can choose to go nude or with a swim suit.  This was exactly what we needed after all the walking around Tokyo!

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      Private onsen at ryokan

    • After enjoying our private bath session, we got ready for our traditional kaiseki dinner in the hotel.  I was not expecting how awesome it was!  There were about 15 plates set up in front of each of our chairs, in a private dining room.  You serve yourself, order sake as you please, and enjoy a traditional kaiseki meal.  TRY EVERYTHING! fullsizerender-3
  2. DAY 2: Hakone Loop Tour – in search of Mt. Fuji.  Pick a clear day so you can see it!  We woke up to the earthquake in Fukushima, thankfully it didn’t result in the tsunami that was anticipated!
    • Breakfast, like dinner, was epic.  Another billion courses…including a crab claw miso soup that was boiled in front of us.  So awesome and flavors I had never tried before!
    • We purchased the Hakone Freepass (mentioned above) at a local stop near our ryokan.  We bought the 2-day for 4,000 YEN.  It covers all of your day’s transportation and comes with a comprehensive bus map that is easy to follow. fullsizerender-5From there, we hopped on the bus to Gora (where the loop begins).  LOOP
    • We loved the loop adventure…four modes of transportation in one day (bus, cable car, ropeway, and boat).  The first epic views of Mount Fuji arrived on the ropeway.  You are inside a gondola…try to sit on the right side of the car (right side if you are facing uphill).
    • We ate black hardboiled eggs in Owakudani (where the ropeway drops you off).  This volcanic site was interesting but we didn’t find it appealing to stay long.  img_7691
    • Pirate ship across Lake Ashi to end the loop – sit on the top level.  It gets crowded but the views aren’t anything new.  fullsizerender-4We found it a great time to chill out, instead of fighting the crowds of tourists with cameras. 🙂  The Fall foliage is simply gorgeous.
    • The bus took us back to the ryokan and we had a late lunch at the Petite Prince (french restaurant).  We were craving some bread after days of fish and Japanese fare.
  3. DAY 3: Depart Hakone…on to Kyoto!

Tokyo, Japan

Japan…what a fascinating culture and country.  We spent nine amazing days exploring in November 2016, during the gorgeous Fall colors.  One overlying observation…I was surprised how many of the venues (hotels, restaurants, etc) were cash only.  So be prepared!  I will break this blog into three separate entries to cover the cities we visited.  Below are a few of my highlights:

Type of Trip: Self planned…9 day itinerary including Tokyo, Hakone, and Kyoto

Hotel: Citadines Shinjuku – booked through Hotels.com

Transport: American Airlines non-stop LAX-HND, then JR Railpass

Pre-trip Advice: Download the following Apps on your phone: maps.me (maps downloaded to your phone to use without cell data plan), currency xe (current exchange rates), HYPERDIA (train routes and planning), and Travel Japan (free wifi in many areas).  Use ATMs in Tokyo to pull out money (you get the best exchange rates and there are 7-11 ATMs everywhere).

  1. We took a 12 hour non-stop flight from LAX to Haneda Airport (recommended – much closer to the City compared to Narita Airport), and landed in the evening. We took a taxi to our hotel in Shinjuku, which cost us around $50 USD.  The Tokyo Monorail picks up in the Haneda Airport and takes you just about anywhere in Tokyo and is very easy to use…we were just exhausted and wanted to get to the hotel. We crashed early to get ourselves ready for the next few days.  Our hotel was similar to a small, efficient apartment with a little kitchen.  The location was excellent too, for exploring the various neighborhoods on foot!  I debated between Shibuya and Shinjuku and found that I preferred Shinjuku – seemed a more 30yr+ crowd and less chaotic.
  2. DAY 1: Due to jetlag – wake up at the crack of dawn and attempt the Tsukiji Market.  You will need to get there SUPER early (some say 3am, depending on the time of year) in order to get a vest to witness the world famous tuna auction (free).  They only give out 120 vests each day…it will be over in the early morning, when you can eat some of the freshest sushi ever for breakfast. 🙂 AUCTION DETAILS.  We then spent Saturday walking around the city.  It was a rainy day, which actually turned out to be a blessing as the streets were empty and we were fortunate to experience some of the sites with few to no tourists (rarity in Japan).
    • Shinjuku neighborhood – largest train station, entertainment center (bright night lights)
    • Stumbled upon the AWESOME ramen chain: Ichiran  img_7434You order at a vending machine (cash) and take the ticket into a little bar area.  You leave the ticket on a dish and they bring you your order.  Each seat at the bar is closed off to the others, so you can eat semi-privately, if desired.  We saw many solo Japanese business people come in for lunch. Theoretically, you could go there and never have to speak to anyone the whole time…wait staff included!
    • Gyoen Park (Shinjuku) – there is a small entrance fee to this magnificent park and gardens.  Again, we had bad weather so it was empty…which made it a little more magical.

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      Gyoen Park in the Fall

    • Shibuya Crossing & Takakini Street (Shibuya) – crazy amount of people.
      Largest intersection crossing in the world and a must see!  Takakini Street was slammed with people but made for epic people and fashion watching (shops line the street).
    • Dinner at one of the best sushi restaurants I have ever tried.
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      Sushi Chef and our dinner

      The quality is on par with those of the elite restaurants written up in our Foodie magazines and documentaries…  It was definitely still expensive (cash only, around $100USD/person), but totally worth it for the experience. You must make a reservation if more than two people. The owner is the only sushi chef there, and the restaurant only accommodates 10 people at a bar.  He is super friendly and welcoming, along with his wife who called herself the “mega boss”.  It was awesome.  HIGHLY recommended.  SUSHIRYORI INOSE

  3. DAY 2: This was another day to continue our walking adventure…and happened to be a Sunday.  We were pleased to find out how accessible Tokyo is by train too!  There are English translations on the ticket machines, as well as on the trains.  Google Maps and maps.me helped us navigate a lot!
    • JR Railpass Activation – we purchased the 7 day railpass, so we needed to be conscious of when we activated it.  We chose Sunday so that it would be able to cover our trips to Hakone, Kyoto, and back to Tokyo (Haneda airport).  You must purchase the rail pass well before your departure date (order from the US).  There are many sites selling them, I found these guys to be the most affordable and the order process was easy: RAILPASS .  Bring the vouchers they send to Japan with your passport to any one of the local EXCHANGE OFFICES to activate it.  You can activate it to start on a future date (if you want to go to the exchange office a few days prior to your first use day).  Using it is easy – the information centers have English-speaking staff.  I would highly recommend pre-reserving seats on the trains (it’s free)…if you know your travel dates and destinations in advance.  For instance, when we activated our passes, we also reserved tickets for the bullet trains to 1) Tokyo – Hakone, 2) Hakone – Kyoto, and 3) Kyoto – Tokyo.  The clerk gave us a print out of all the train options for each day for the routes we wanted.  It was nice to have this out of the way and know that we had seats.  It also gave us a more concrete schedule to plan around.
    • Meiji Shrine – there must have been a wedding or ceremony as most of the women were in formal kimonos, along with their daughters.  It was beautiful to watch and experience this traditional dress.
    • Yoyogi Park – Shibuya.  HUGE open park…similar to Central Park in NYC but felt more active.  Families everyone, playing frisbee and picnicking.  There was also an Elvis-impersonation sock hop dance situation happening near one of the entrances.  They sell grapefruit beers at the beverage tubs as well.  Really entertaining.
    • Robot Show – a must do, and an equally indescribable experience.  We did it as a dinner and show option.  I found discounted tickets through Veltra.com (around $60USD/each).  Book early to ensure availability.  ROBOT SHOW

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      Robot Restaurant – Waiting Room

  4. DAY 3: Last day in Tokyo.  Get up early to explore more before checking out of hotel at noon to head to the next city.
    • Tsukiji Market – sushi for breakfast and $20 strawberries!  Yes, $20 is ridiculous for strawberries…but they were the best we have ever tasted.  Not kidding.img_7626
    • Train to Tokyo Station – Shinjuku stop to Tokyo station for 200 YEN…from there we caught the JR bullet train (Shinkansen Line) to head to Hakone (off the Odawara stop).
    • Arrive in Hakone (known for its traditional onsen (mineral hot springs/baths)…see my next post for details on Hakone.