I should start by saying this was one of my favorite trips. Japan is one of the most incredible places. There is an energy of the culture that is enchanting. I should also mention, a big priority on this trip was the food. I am obsessed with sushi and ramen, so I intended to eat as much as possible.
When we arrived in Tokyo we went to our hotel, Cerulean Tower Hotel, to drop our stuff off and start exploring. We went to a few historical places that first day, to Meiji Shrine, which is Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine. Right near there is the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, which is beautiful and depending on the time of year you can see the cherry blossoms. We also went to the Sensoji temple, which is Tokyo’s oldest temple built in 645 AD to honor the goddess Kannon, it has both Buddhist and Shinto temples. There are tons of market stalls along Nakamise Street with Japanese food, knickknacks, and souvenirs. It’s a tourist trap, but definitely worth seeing. The other shrine we went to was the Kanda Shrine, a Shinto shrine. It was again gorgeous, so cool, and a must see, but as to be expected, filled with tourists upon tourists.
The second day we got up at like 3am, so we could go to the Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market and watch the tuna action. Tsukiji is the world’s largest fish market and well worth a visit. You get there before 5am, so you can watch the live tuna action. It’s first come first serve and limited to 120 people, so make sure you get there early. It sounds a little crazy to get up so early to watch people buy fish, but trust me, it is completely captivating. Even if this does not sound up your alley – you will find it fascinating. I believe you can explore this fish market at normal hours during the day, but I recommend being a bit wild and getting there before 4:30am!
This next part is going to make me sound a little crazy too, but after the fish market, there are a few incredible sushi restaurants around the corner that are a must. Sushi for breakfast is completely socially acceptable near Tsukiji. There are two people typically go to, Sushi Dai or Sushi Daiwa. I was set on going to Dai, but it’s a mini restaurant, so even though we got there by 5:30am, we still had almost a three hour wait. But, that’s how you know it’s really good! The best part, is that it’s incredibly cheap for easily the best sushi of my life. I believe it was around ¥4,000 for the omakase, which includes ten nigiri and one maki roll. The best part, is that after you’ve already done all of this, you still have a whole day available to site see.
We went to the Tokyo Imperial Palace, which is where the Emperor lives, and there’s a huge park around it, which was gorgeous to walk around and explore. And after that I was ready for some ramen. I wanted to check out the Golden Gai neighborhood, which is typically known for an evening drink at these hole in the wall taverns. Along these narrow winding alleys, there are also a few great ramen spots!
We ended our day by walking through Shibuya Crossing. This is arguably the busiest intersection in the world, and to go during rush hour was captivating to watch. You’ve surely seen a video of how insane it is, but it feels pretty crazy to be in it and watch it happen around you.
The next day we went on the Sumida River Cruise. The cruise departs Asakusa for Hamarikyu Garden and gives you a unique view of Tokyo and some of its modern architecture and bridges from the Sumida River. It was a nice break from all the walking, and a great way to see more of Tokyo.
Being as I’m obsessed with Ramen, I made my friends travel to the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum. It’s about an hour train from Tokyo and was odd and interesting, but I’m happy we went. The first floor is a gallery of the history of ramen, with lots of instant ramen souvenirs. But then there’s a replica of the old Tokyo streets and nine ramen restaurants. You get tickets and eat mini ramen dishes from as many as your belly can handle. The ramen was delicious, and it was cool to see what “old Tokyo” looked like. If you have time and love ramen, it’s a cool place to see, but not necessary.
And the next day we were off to Kyoto for a few days! We took the JR bullet train to Kyoto Station, which takes a bit less than two and a half hours. It’s incredibly fast and was pretty awesome compared to the normal trains I’d previously taken. We arrived at our hotel, the Kyoto Royal Hotel & Spa, which has since been closed, and again started our adventures.
Kyoto has a very different feel from Tokyo. It feels more classical Japan. There are less large, modern buildings – in fact I don’t remember seeing any. It’s filled with Buddhist temples palaces, Shinto shrines, and of course incredible kaiseki dining.
We went to a ton of temples in Kyoto. We started with the Ryoanji Temple, which was ofunded in 1450 and has Japan’s most famous Zen rock gardens. The garden has 15 large rocks laid out in small groups, but it is impossible to see all the rocks at the same time, regardless of the placement of the observer. It was pretty cool to see and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so worth a visit! We also went to Kinkaku-ji Temple, which was my favorite. It’s the famous Golden Pavilion (picture below) It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most gorgeous building I’ve ever seen.
We also went to the Ginkaku-ji Temple, Todai-ji Temple, and Kiyomizu-dera Temple. they’re all gorgeous, amazing to see, but at some point you might chose to just pick a few rather than all of them. These were my least favorite, possibly because I’d already seen a few, but Todai-ji was overly crowded. It was really pretty because you hike up a bit so there’s a wonderful view, but when we went it felt impossible to move there were so many people filling the streets and surrounding areas. Ginkaku-ji and Kiyomizu-dera were gorgeous and amazing, but hard to differentiate from some of the earlier ones we had seen. Clearly at this point we were pretty exhausted, so we skipped the Nijo castle and just walked by the outside, but if you have the energy it’s supposed to be gorgeous on the inside.
That night I went to a famous tofu eatery, Tousuiro, while the others went to find some Kobe beef. Kyoto is famous for its tofu and kaiseki, which is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. I’ve been a vegetarian for almost twenty years, so I’ve eaten my share of tofu. But this dinner was unlike anything I’d ever encountered. The highlights of my meal were the sesame tofu with wasabi, chilled yuba (bean curd skin), and definitely the chawan mushi (egg custard but made with tofu). Most of the time it was hard to believe the dishes I ate were made of tofu. The dishes were creamy and elegant. It was incredible and vegetarian or not, it is a must try!
Finally, that night we walked around Gion, the “Geisha” district of Kyoto and saw a few Geisha (or Geiko as they’re now called).
The next day we walked through the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrin. This shrine sits at the base of the Inari mountain, so you can walk through the thousands or orange arches for over an hour. This shrine was unique, gorgeous, and one of my favorite parts of Kyoto.
After the last shrine we did the Philosopher’s Walk. It’s a path that follows the canal in Kyoto between Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji. It’s aoubt a thirty minute walk, relaxing, and gorgeous.
We were flying from Osaka to Seoul, so we did a quick trip to Osaka that afternoon and explored for a few hours before our flight the next morning. We had a proper Osaka dinner of Okonomiyaki, which the Kansai region, and Osaka in particular, are famous for. Okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake, filled with whatever you’d like. In mine I had eggs, shredded cabbage, onion, shrimp, veggies, but the others had meat instead of shrimp. It felt like a “everything but the kitchen sink” type meal, but it was delicious nonetheless.
Before we knew it, our Japan trek was over. It was easily one of the coolest trips I’ve been on. There was so much culture and history to take in. The food was impeccable. I can’t wait to go back and explore more cities in Japan!