Japan has been on my bucket list for years. It has long been one of those places that has held a special fascination for me. I can’t explain it- but it’s like that Carly Rae Jepsen song, “before you came into my life I missed you so bad…”. I missed Japan before I ever set foot there.
This visit was attached to a business trip for my dad, and we were also escorting my aunt & uncle (who have never traveled outside the US) to see their son, who is currently stationed at Yokota. Because of this our visit was strictly confined to 8 days and we divided our time between Tokyo & Kyoto.
Day 1: We arrived into Narita Airport around 3pm. Passed through customs quickly & easily, then went to the Japan Rail Office to exchange our rail vouchers for our passes. I strongly recommend purchasing this pass if you will be in Japan for more than a few days. We easily got double the value out of our passes, especially considering that they cover reserved seats in the premium car on the Narita Express (to/from the airport) and select Shinkansen (bullet trains connecting major cities) lines. In Tokyo we also found that we could get almost anywhere we wanted to go using the JR Yamanote Line combined with a short walk. It certainly helps that all the signs are translated into English and the JR attendants are extremely helpful when you are looking for a line to your desired destination. After receiving our passes we boarded the Narita Express to Shinagawa, where we checked in to the Tokyo Marriott there. I certainly would not recommend this hotel for budget travelers, but for anyone who uses Marriott rewards or is traveling for business, this is an excellent option. They have a wonderful breakfast that includes western and Japanese items, and the location (an easy walk from Shinagawa Station) can’t be beat. Quick dinner at the hotel with aunt/uncle/cousin (hotels are generally a safe bet to please less adventurous palates), then they departed for the base and we met a strict bed time to fend off any jet lag.
Day 2: Here I made a critical error. I have this rule about not taking organized tours, but I saw online that there was a half day bus tour that had great reviews and it went to 4 of the sites that were on my Tokyo list! Having never been to Tokyo before, I had no idea that the two of us could have easily traveled between these 3 sites by rail much more quickly and efficiently… so I signed us up for the tour. Honestly it was a bust. We spent more than half the morning on the bus and less than 30 minutes at each of the Meiji Shrine and the Imperial Palace Gardens. It felt like we were racing around just to try to see everything- there was certainly no time to explore or really soak up the experience. When we reached the 3rd stop, Asakusa, we bailed on the tour and spent the rest of the day exploring on our own. No hate for this tour, it would have been great for people who are not comfortable using public transport in a foreign country or who have trouble getting around for health reasons. It just wasn’t a good fit for more independent travelers who can get around via rail/foot quite easily.
For lunch we stopped into a tiny ramen shop in Asakusa, a long narrow room with a counter for 7 people and 4 options on the menu. For 2 huge bowls of fantastic ramen we paid a total of 700 yen- less than $7.
After finishing in Asakusa we were super sweaty (Japan in July is HOT) so we decided to head back to the hotel to shower and find a place to eat dinner. We opted for tempura and I found a local place, but we failed to make a reservation and so ended up having ramen again at Kimi Ramen in Shinagawa. This place was so cool- you order and pay through a machine, which prints you a ticket. You then put the ticket on the counter and the chef takes it as he is ready to prepare your bowl. Since the whole machine was in Japanese we required a little assistance, but the guys who worked there were very kind and helped us with just one small error in translation- we didn’t realize at one point when he asked us “small, medium or large” that he was asking my dad about how many bean sprouts he wanted on his bowl. It ended up being a mountain of bean sprouts! Hilarious.
Finished the day with a cold sake, feeling very satisfied.
Day 3: We woke up early to start our day at the Tsukiji Fish Market. We didn’t wake up as early as some, who arrive at the market around 4am for the daily tuna auction. They only allow visitors (non-industry folk) in for the auction on certain days and even then they only allow a few. I’ve heard it’s quite the spectacle but we didn’t feel like waking up that early to maybe or maybe not get in. We spent the morning wandering through the rows of stalls, purchasing beautiful Japanese ceramics (I fulfilled my mission of buying some ramen bowls), teas and street food. My favorite find were these shrink wrapped dried octopuses, which had faces drawn on their wrappers! So funny! The fish market was easily one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip. It definitely tops my recommendation list for Tokyo, and is a great place to buy authentic gifts to take home.
For dinner we ate at Inakaya in Roppongi, and it was one of the coolest things ever. I imagine that restaurants like this one were the inspiration for Benihana and some other westernized Japanese restaurants. We sat at a long table that faced two chefs, who were separated from us by several feet of fresh foods resting on ice. There were all kinds of fish, squid, crabs, mushrooms, vegetables, etc. We would tell the chefs which of the foods we wanted and they would cook them, then pass the food to us on long wooden paddles.
It ended up being a bunch of small plates extended throughout the evening, and we got to try quite a variety of things! One of the coolest details of the dinner was drinking sake from a wooden box. The waiter set the little box onto a ceramic dish and poured sake into the box until it overflowed into the dish, representing abundance. The belief is that the spirit from the tree infuses the sake. To drink it you first have to lean down and slurp out the first bit so the sake won’t spill when you lift the box. Once you have made enough room in the box, you pour the overflow of sake from the dish back into the box, and keep drinking!
Day 4: I had read online that the Samurai Museum in Tokyo us supposed to be wonderful, and it did not disappoint. It is a small museum but I found it to be quite spectacular. They have dozens of suits of original samurai armor (one even had bloodstains on it) and our English-speaking tour guide was incredibly knowledgable about the history of the samurai and the way the changing shoguns (samurai leaders) affected the culture of Japan throughout history. It was fascinating to learn about how the armor was made differently from European armor in order to be more light and flexible. I also enjoyed the guide’s stories about the personalities of the different samurai and the significance of their crests.
We also spent some time in Harajuku, walking around and just witnessing the general spectacle. It was quite a lot to take in- this is the area where, from what I gathered, Japan’s teenagers go to dress up, wear colored contacts and wigs, eat tons of sweets (there were literally 6 crepe stands) and bask in anime culture. This is also where we found a Daiso, which is a 100 yen store (equivalent of a dollar store in the states). A great place to buy cheap souvenirs if you have kids in your life back home.
In the afternoon we took the Shinkansen to Kyoto, which turned out to be one of my favorite cities in the world. More to come…