After an overnight flight from Bangkok, we arrived into Narita airport a little early, at a few minutes before 8am. My parents had arrived two days earlier and had gone to see Mount Fuji, so we were all planning to meet at our hotel in Tokyo (where they very kindly putting us up at as our anniversary present). Narita airport is over an hour away from Tokyo by train. We had done a lot of research about the fastest and cheapest ways to get from one to the other, which all of course went out the window as soon as we got in and were able to just figure it out for ourselves. My parents had been in a rush when they landed, as they were trying to catch multiple trains to Mt. Fuji, so they paid more (about $30) to get into the city as fast as possible, by train. Unlike them, we had plenty of time, so we opted for the cheaper mode of transport, the bus, for $9. On a Tuesday morning during rush hour, there was amazingly no traffic and we ended up getting to Tokyo station in less than an hour. From there, we got on a local train to Shinjuku, the area where we were staying.
As soon as we started walking around Tokyo station and then Shinjuku station, we (or mostly Dave) made a couple of observations. First, all of the men seemed to be wearing suits. And I’m not exaggerating when I say everyone. Even the taxi drivers and people handing out flyers on the streets. They were all in suits. Dave said that even when working in New York, he never saw that many people so dressed up (he also said that he felt very underdressed in his tank top and shorts). The second observation was that nothing seemed very crowded. For a weekday rush hour in a city with 13 million people, we were wondering where they all were. We immediately saw how very different it was from the always crowded, packed with traffic Bangkok that we’re used to.
We were supposed to meet at noon, but somehow all ended up getting to the hotel about an hour early, which was great because that meant we had more time to explore in the afternoon. First, we hit Harajuku to see one of Tokyo’s upscale shopping area. It really reminded us of Michigan Avenue in Chicago, with its beautiful tree-lined streets with wide sidewalks, tons of fancy stores (think Prada, Gucci, Chanel, etc.), and the trendiest Tokyoites (and lots of school girls in cute sailor-looking uniforms) shopping and window shopping. We took a turn down Takeshita Street (which is actually more of an alley – no cars), which was very different from the main drag with its more funky vibe and tons of crepe shops.
We weren’t in the market for a crepe just then, but we were hungry for lunch. Just when I thought my dad wouldn’t be able to take one more step, unless it was into a restaurant, we stumbled upon a really cute bar stool only restaurant serving all different kinds of noodles and soups – just what we were in the market for. We went in and sat down at the only four seats left in the place and asked for a menu. The waiter pointed at a machine and told us to order there. Well, the whole thing was in Japanese, so luckily there were pictures and a very nice guy sitting right behind us who was eating something delicious looking and was willing to give us a little help. It took us a few minutes, but finally we figured out how to order (put your money in first, click on what you want, then give your tickets to the guy behind the counter). They asked us how we wanted our noodles and our soup (they had a card written out in English – we chose normal on both accounts) and then our soups were delivered very shortly after. Everyone’s meals were delicious… and huge. We left very full and excited to try out many more Japanese meals over the next couple weeks.
After lunch, we walked around the shops a bit more and then over to Meji-jingu, Tokyo’s grandest Shinto shrine. We walked through a very nice garden to get there and took some pictures before continuing on our walk to the next neighborhood on our list, Shibuya.
Shibuya is known as another very popular nightlife area and is also home to Shibuya crossing, which is supposed to be one of the world’s busiest intersections. There’s a Starbucks looking right down upon the intersection, so we went in there to catch the view. Wednesday at 3pm probably wasn’t when the crossing was at its busiest, but it was still pretty crazy and pretty cool to see, with about 6 different crosswalks and people in all sorts of clothing walking every which direction. After seeing the crossing, we spent some time walking around Shibuya before heading back to our hotel to relax for a bit and go for a swim.
Before we knew it, we were back out again and ready for the night in Tokyo. We had decided to stay in our area that night, since Shinjuku is known to have great restaurants, nightlife, and the famous Golden Gai, which was our first stop. Golden Gai used to be a post-WWII black market area but it’s now a series of alleyways that are filled with teeny tiny bars. Most of them charge a cover (we think which pays for men to get the personal attention of a woman – not for sex, just flirting) and most are filled with people who only speak Japanese, but there are definitely some exceptions. After taking a quick look around some of the streets, we decided that we’d go eat and then come back after to find a spot to have a drink.
Shinjuku is filled with tons of great restaurants, but after seeing a sushi bar with pretty reasonably priced sampler plates of sushi, we were sold. Dave and I each ordered a sampler of 6 pieces in roll form and then six in regular sushi (fish over rice) form. The type of fish you got was up to the chef. My parents were not quite as adventurous and decided to stick to what they know – tuna rolls. We let this slide since it was only the first night. The sushi was really good and we all shared a bottle of hot sake, which may have been the best sake I’ve ever had. It was a perfect sushi meal for our first night in Japan (I still can’t believe I got to eat sushi in Japan!!!).
After dinner, we headed back to the Golden Gai and strolled around a little more. I was fascinated by this area and have never seen anything quite like it before. After a little searching, we found an upstairs bar with a few Japanese people inside that didn’t charge a cover and had very reasonably priced drinks. We sat down and placed our orders and almost immediately, the two Japanese women sitting next to us started chatting us up, trying to practice their English (which was pretty bad). Amazingly, one of the women was planning to visit Chicago at the end of the summer and of all places, was going to Champagne, Illinois, where Dave went to school (both undergrad and law) for a wedding. It was a pretty crazy coincidence. One of the women was from Kobe and owned a marshmallow shop there. The other was from Osaka and was raving about the pizza (NAME) there. The woman from Kobe invited us to come to her shop. The woman from Osaka gave us her card and told us to come to her office when we were in town and she would take us out to her favorite pizza place for lunch. Who knew we’d be making friends so fast! After a while (and a few drinks) most of the Japanese people in the bar started smoking, and for my parents, that meant it was time to go home. We were okay with that, as we’d only slept a few hours the night before.
As soon as we got back onto the main streets in Shinjuku, we saw that Tokyo had completely transformed. The empty streets and quiet, reserved people from earlier in the day had been replaced by hundreds and hundreds of laughing, drinking, stumbling, loud Japanese people. The only thing that hadn’t changed was that they were all still wearing suits. We saw then and there that this really is a work hard, play hard city. Everyone means business during the day, but as soon as work is over, they are ready to party.
The next morning we slept in a little and got out of our hotel at around 9. The first stop of the day was to Akihabara, which is the electronics/geek area of Tokyo. Here we found huge Sega arcade buildings, which were literally 5 floor building where people come just to play games. We tried to all play a car racing game against each other but ended up each just playing ourselves. Then, we walked around the area, looking into all of the electronic shops. We found the most popular Maid Café (called Home Café) in the city, which is basically a restaurant where all of the servers are cute women and they are all dressed up in sexy maid outfits. My parents didn’t understand this concept at all, but it’s pretty much designed for men to go in (I guess when they need a break from playing all the video games at Sega), pay a fee, and have a pretty girl flirt with them. We thought if we ordered food there they wouldn’t charge us the $6 fee per person just to come in, but we were wrong. So, after sitting and getting the menu read to us in Japanese by one of the maids, we left. And, I’m glad we did, because we ended up having another great lunch of rice bowls topped with beef (veggies for my mom) before heading to the next area.
We decided that our next stop would be in Roponggi, because we thought this was where we’d be able to see the Tokyo Tower (aka their version of the Eiffel Tower). When we got to Roppingi though (after a few long train rides),we realized it was still about another mile walk to see it. We hadn’t really wanted to go up to the top of the tower (which you can do for $8), so after we got a nice view of it from Roponggi Hills (a big outdoor shopping complex) we decided to grab a few big coffees (from Starbucks, the most popular choice of course) and then head home.
That night we had a special activity planned that Dave and I had gotten for my parents as Mother’s/Father’s day presents. We went to see a baseball game at the Tokyo Dome. The Yomoyuri Giants were playing another Tokyo team (the Lions) and after we’d heard from several people that the baseball games in Japan are super fun, we decided we didn’t want to miss it.
The Tokyo Dome is really cool. It’s a really big stadium surrounded by an amusement park. The best part is that they allow you to bring in your own food and drinks. After walking around the outside of the stadium we picked up a bunch of beers to bring in with us. We didn’t realize that they make you pour all of your beer into paper cups right when you get in, but luckily I had brought a big purse and we were able to quickly hide some of our cans before having to pour them all. The stadium itself was really big and pretty packed. Dave had noted on our way to the game that if we’d been going to a Cubs or White Sox game, the train would have been packed with people wearing their team’s gear. Guess what everyone was wearing on our train… suits! But, there were lots of people in Giant’s clothes once we got into the stadium.
It was funny to see people eating sushi and noodles at a baseball game (and using chopsticks) though they did have the regular baseball food too (popcorn, hotdogs, burgers, pretzels). All of the vendors walking through the stadium were cute girls wearing baseball hats and bright colored, matching outfits. The game itself was really fun and actually a pretty good game. All of the fans seemed to be really into it. After the 4th or 5th inning we went to check out the food scene and picked up dinner. We all opted for Western things, except my mom who got noodles. The food was pretty good and we all had a great time at the game. The only disappointment was that we had heard that something really unique and special happened during the 7th inning stretch. We had all been waiting for this all day (or longer) but unfortunately, the 7th inning came and went and there wasn’t even as much as an organized stretch. A few cheerleaders came out, but it hardly seemed like anything to get excited about or even mention. We hadn’t planned to stay for the whole game, but we were having so much fun that we did. Afterwards, we took the train home and got to sleep to prepare for our early morning the next day.
The Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo is the world’s biggest seafood market. The thing to do is wake up really early to go to their tuna auction that they hold every morning at around 5:30. They only let 120 people in every day, so in order to secure a spot, most people get to the market at around 4am to start lining up. While most people doing this either pull an all-nighter and head over there after a night of clubbing or stay in a hotel by there, we were about a $50 taxi ride away (the trains in Tokyo don’t start running until 5am). We had been planning to suck it up and go anyway until our hotel’s concierge told us that in order to really guarantee we’d get in, we’d need to leave at about 2am, rather than 3:30 or 4am, like we’d been planning. After hearing this, we decided that the tuna auction was maybe not the best idea because if we woke up that early, paid all that money for a taxi, and then missed it, we’d be pissed. Plus, then we’d still have to wait there for a couple of hours in order to take the train back. So, instead of risking it, we decided to leave our hotel at about 4:45am to catch the first train at 5. We’d still get there before the auction and maybe get lucky, but if not, we’d still be able to look around the market and not have wasted $50 and a couple hours of sleep.
So, that’s what we did. We all met in the lobby at 4:30 and were on the first train. We did miss the auction (we later found out that it was sold out by 3am, so we would have never gotten there in time), but we did get to explore the market, which was awesome. There are two parts of the market. The outer market is where all of the restaurants and tourist shops are. This opens at 5am, when the auction begins. The inner market, which is where the wholesale buying and selling of the fish actually happens, opens at 5am, but not to the public until 9. This is the part we really wanted to see and we read that the guards won’t let any tourists in unless you tell them you are shopping (WORD). Immediately after entering the inner market, we were stopped by a guard and told we weren’t allowed to come in. We said the magic word and it worked! He let us in and we were able to see all the fish being prepared for sale. We even saw some of the huge tunas that we think had come straight from the auction. True to our word, we even did a little shopping ourselves. We got a huge package of fresh tuna sashimi (which we’d eat later with rice) and we also each got a tuna sandwich to have for lunch on our train to Kyoto.
Walking around the market was a really cool experience. We think it may have been ever cooler and more local feeling than going to the auction, which we imagine must be quite touristy (how can it not be with 120 other tourists surrounding you). After we’d made our purchases, we checked out the outer market. There were lines around the block (probably 2-3 hours long) for some of the most popular sushi restaurants there. And this was at 6am. Crazy. All in all, it was a very cool experience and we think we really did it perfectly. Not only that, but we ended up being able to get on an earlier train to Kyoto (where we enjoyed our delicious tuna sashimi and tuna sandwiches)… so it really all worked out.
All in all, Tokyo is a very interesting place. During the day, it doesn’t feel like you’re in Asia at all, but rather feels like it could be interchanged with any other huge city (NY, London, etc). During the day, Dave and I felt that it was missing a little bit of what we love about the other very big Asian cities that we’ve been to – the markets, the street food, the almost overwhelming recognition that you’re somewhere foreign. I’ve never seen a city though that is so different from day to night. At night, Tokyo really comes alive. This is when we feel the energy of the city, the hustle and bustle. This is what makes Tokyo stand out and we’re looking forward to coming back to Tokyo at the end of our time in Japan to experience more of this. But, day or night, the city is very clean, the people are very nice, friendly, helpful and eager to chat with us, and of course, the food is great. Now, we’re looking forward to experiencing more of the cultural and historical side of Japan in Kyoto.
We got into Kyoto and could immediately tell that we were in a very different world than we’d been in in Tokyo. We split up with my parents at the train station to go to our respective hotels and made plans to meet up a couple of hours later at their hotel. Our hostel (and it’s still called a hostel even though it was $50/night – very different than the hostels we’re used to) was in a great location just a couple of minutes from the train station in the center of town. We had taken a train an hour earlier than we’d originally booked, so we were an hour ahead of schedule. We were all ready to check in and hit the ground running but when we got to our hostel, there was a sign on the door saying that it was closed and that no one would be there until 3. We weren’t expecting to be able to check into our room at 1pm but we were expecting to at least be able to drop our bags off. But, there was no one in sight and no one answered when we banged on the door, so we needed to figure out another option. We walked around for a while looking for other hotels where we could potentially leave our stuff for a few hours, but no luck. Finally, we remembered that we’d seen lockers in some of the other train stations in Tokyo so we decided to check and see if maybe (hopefully) they had them here too. Luckily they did so we stuffed all of our stuff in a locker, paid our 600 yen and left very annoyed about the whole situation.
We picked my parents up and set out to explore Southern Higoshima, one of the main sightseeing districts in Kyoto. Our book has a walking tour of this area, so we followed that in order to hit all the main sights, only we did it backwards. Along the way, many of the sites that we were planning to stop at charged a fee, so we tried to pick and choose carefully. We wished they had some kind of city day pass (similar to what they have in Hoi An, Vietnam) where you could pay one flat fee to see all the sites, but no such luck. We started off at two very unimpressive temples/gardens (Shoren-in and Chion-in – if you’re planning a trip to Kyoto, you can definitely skip these and save yourselves some money). So, our walking tour didn’t get off to a stellar start, but luckily after that, things started to improve. Our next stop was a very nice park called Maruyama-koen. It’s supposed to be the home to Kyoto’s biggest/most famous cherry tree, but since it’s not cherry blossom season, we had to make a guess as to which tree this was. But, the park itself was very pretty and to top it off, it was there that we had our first geisha sighting (or so we thought). From what I had read about Kyoto, it was very difficult to spot a geisha. Maybe you’d get lucky late at night in Gion (the geisha district) but chances are, if you saw one, it would only be for a second. So, I was thrilled when I spotted one so early into our trip. But then I started to see tons of women dressed in kimono and realized that something was a little fishy, though I wasn’t exactly sure of what. Dave had hypothesized that maybe the city paid the geishas to walk around and take pictures with tourists, but we weren’t too keen on that theory.
After exploring a park and getting a couple of ice cream cones to snack on (green tea was clearly the most popular but we opted for cookies and cream this time around), we continued on our walking tour to Ishibel-koji, which our book claims is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets. We thought, however, that it was really nothing special (it was really just a pretty residential street) and that Kiyomizu-michi (aka Teapot Lane), the very charming store-lined, cobble stone street leading to our final stop (Kiyomizu-dera) was much nicer. We got distracted for a while popping in and out of all of the shops until Dave realized that kiyomizu-dera, the last temple of the day, would be closing in about an hour. We rushed there and walked throughout the very beautiful grounds, but unfortunately some of the buildings that we wanted to go in, including one that our book makes out to be a very secretive and cool surprise, were already closed. Dave’s FOMO kicked in and he was very upset to be out of the loop on the surprise, but unfortunately, there was really nothing we could do. So, we started to walk home, again stopping at some cute shops along the way.
It was on our way back that we think we figured out why there were so many “geisha” walking around. We saw shops renting out kimonos and realized that women were renting them to walk around and play geisha for the day. I suppose the pictures look very nice when you’re dressed up in this beautiful traditionally clothing while walking around this historic city. We did, however, find one group of geisha with their hair done and their faces painted white. We think (hope) that these women were the real deal.
We got to Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto (also where Dave and I were staying), and Dave and I needed to stop back at our locker and then hotel to finally check in. My parents had planned on coming with us, but it was already almost 7 and they didn’t think they’d be able to wait another couple of hours to eat (plus they were exhausted from waking up for the fish market at 4am), so we decided to split up for the night.
Dave and I picked up our bags from the lockers and went to check in at JAM Hostel and Sake Bar. We tried to complain to the hostel about not being open for 4 hours smack in the middle of the day and not at least leaving a note on the door to tell people where to put their stuff, but they were very stubborn and rude and wouldn’t so much as give us an apology, let alone our locker money back or a glass of sake at the sake bar they also owned. We tried to explain that we’d stayed at a hundred hostels and never before have we experienced such a problem. They said we should have known no one would be there (our booking receipt said that we wouldn’t be able to check in – very different) and we should have known that there were lockers to keep our stuff at (it was only our 3rd day in Japan, how were we supposed to know!). Anyway, long story short, their customer service was very poor, but I guess I’ll leave the rest of my complaints on TripAdvisor. Other than their poor customer service, the room was fine and the location great.
By the time we got settled, showered, and checked our email it was already past 9pm. We went out to explore Gion and find somewhere for dinner. By the time we got out, many of the restaurants, which there aren’t that many of in this area to begin with, were closed. We actually just ended up picking up dinner from a 7-11 like store – they have tons of prepared foods from sushi to noodles and more. I’d wanted to try it out for lunch but didn’t get to because we picked up sushi from the Tsukiji market in Tokyo…so, now was my chance (and it was actually all pretty good!).
Before we went home to eat though, we walked through some of the streets and alleys and saw that there were tons of private and very exclusive looking clubs with body guards standing outside. These were the clubs where the geisha did their entertaining and we got lucky enough to see one walking around with a few men and doing her thing.
All of Kyoto made us feel like we had stepped back in time a few hundred years. Between the temples, the geisha, and all of the women (and some men) dressed up in kimonos, we really felt like we had done some time traveling. The Lonely Planet says that Kyoto is the place to see what Japan is all about and that it ranks with London, Paris, and Rome as one of the cities that you must see at least once in your lifetime. After just an afternoon there, I understood why they said that and finally on our third day in Japan I was starting to actually feel like we were in Japan.
On our second day in Kyoto, we planned to meet my parents a little later in the morning – at 10am – so Dave and I went for a run in the morning back to Kiyomizu-dera so we could find out what the big secret was from the Lonely Planet. We had asked the day before and they told us the complex opened at 6am, but when we got there, they said that the special exhibit we wanted to see (Tainai-meguri) wouldn’t open until 9am. We were about 45 minutes too early. At first we thought we were going to miss it again, but then we decided that if we stayed, we’d probably still be ok timing-wise to meet my parents. We walked around the complex a little more and found ourselves at a totally different surprise, a gigantic cemetery with thousands and thousands of graves/mausoleums. It was pretty impressive and very cool to see. Our book hadn’t mentioned anything about it so it was a very pleasant surprise. It was also closed the day before which is why we hadn’t seen it then. Besides being impressive in its own right, it also overlooked the whole city which was very cool to see. At 5 to 9am we were back at Tainai-meguri waiting for the doors to open. Luckily, we got there just in time to beat the hundreds of kids that were visiting on school trips. Finally the doors opened, and we entered only to see…. Well, in the spirit of keeping secrets, I think I’ll keep this one to myself. It was definitely a little over-rated, but still pretty cool and something we’re definitely glad we went back for. But, if you want to find out, I guess you’ll just have to go to Kyoto and see it for yourself J
We met my parents at 10amand went to see one of the most popular sights outside of the city, Arashiyama’s bamboo grove. Basically a whole forest of bamboo. There’s a picture of this on the cover of the Lonely Planet, so we thought it would be very impressive, but after the short walk through the bamboo grove, we all left feeling a little underwhelmed. Luckily the little town the bamboo grove was in was very cute and nearby was the monkey forest, another huge attraction. Dave and I have seen lots of monkeys, but my parents had never really experienced them (other than the time my mom saw them at the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur last summer). We started the 20 minute uphill walk and within minutes were surrounded by some giant monkeys. I’d never been scared of them before, but when a huge monkey started growling at me, I got really scared. I realized that this was my first encounter with any wild animals since being bitten by a dog a few months ago, and I guess I’m still a little scarred from that. Luckily, there were only a few tears and we made it up the mountain to the monkey feeding station and an amazing view of the city. The view alone was worth the trip up there…. And everyone else really enjoyed the monkeys.
We ended up back in Kyoto a little earlier than anticipated (after stopping for some soba near the bamboo grove) and decided to do the walking tour of the other main part of the city (Northern Higoshima). We started at Ginkaku-ji, a very beautiful (albeit crowded) complex known for its gardens and its raked cones of white sand which symbolize a mountain and a lake. We made our way down to Nanzen-ji (after so many temples we decided to skip the entrance fee and just explore the very pretty grounds) via the Path of Philosophy. I thought the Path of Philosophy, which was about a 30 minute walk under pretty trees, next to a river, and with cute shops all along the way, was the best part.
We ended up back near my parents’ hotel and dropped them off before heading back to our area for a few hours. Before going back to our place to get ready for the evening, Dave and I made another lap through some streets in Gion that we had yet to explore. This time, we were exploring during the day and saw a much different scene than the one we’d seen the night before filled with very cute/charming streets with shops and restaurants, plus one last temple that we stumbled upon. We even saw a steak restaurant that listed the name of the cow they would be serving that night, along with his father’s name AND grandfather’s name. I’d definitely never seen anything like that before.
We got ready for dinner and my parents met us at our hotel (amazingly their hotel had a free shuttle that took them right there). Our plan was to explore downtown Kyoto. We originally mistakenly thought that this meant the area by Kyoto Station. But it turns out downtown Kyoto was actually just across the river from Gion, where we were staying. Luckily Dave figured it out in time and we were able to call my parents (our hotel charged us 50 cents to use their phone – a**holes!!) and switch our plans in time.
We walked across the bridge and were immediately transported back to present time from the time warp that is Gion and the historic areas of Kyoto. It almost felt like we were back in Tokyo and we couldn’t believe that there was such a difference just across the bridge. We were no longer in a world where there were temples and women wearing kimonos. A few blocks past the river were two large, covered shopping streets and then the street right after the river was filled with great-looking restaurants. We explored the whole area and after the place we had originally wanted to go to for dinner (a ramen joint written up by the Lonely Planet) had a little too small of a menu for us, we ended up back at a different noodle place we’d seen at the beginning of the evening. Somehow, no matter how much Dave and I explore and search for different restaurants, we almost always end up back at the first one we saw. We had a great dinner of udon and soba (standing up at a counter served by two cute older Japanese women) and then walked back across the bridge and also back in time a couple hundred years. My parents took a taxi home and we did one more lap around Gion before calling it a night.
My parents met us early our last morning in Kyoto so we could check out the Nishiki market before heading to Hiroshima. The market is supposed to be filled with tons of great food stalls but I think we got there a little too early. It is supposed to open at 9am, and there were a good amount of stalls open then, but there were also a lot that were closed. But, we still picked up some breakfast before heading to the train station.