Steve & Al's Japan Adventure 2018
Tokyo (Pt. 1)
Just two of 9 million people in Tokyo, we hit the ground running in every direction when we emerged in Tokyo Station. We wasted no time during our first three days. Taking advantage of the sun shining on us, we hit up a ton of the “must see” tourist spots (Shibuya Crossing, Shinjuku Station, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, the Imperial Palace, Ginza, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building), and fueled ourselves with “must eat” cuisine: tsukemen (ramen variation that uses a heavy broth for dipping noodles), gyoza, sushi, yakitori, and department store sweet treats. Navigating the city was overwhelming at first but within 24 hrs we had a good sense of how to get around and it was truly a joy - a testament to the superbly efficient train system as well as our smartphones!
With our hotel in the Tokyo Station neighborhood, we found the sheer number of black suits astounding - uniformity was the overwhelming trend here. Not until our Airbnb Sake Experience in Kichijoji (a more casual neighborhood in Western Tokyo) and our yakitori meet-up in Roppongi did we see “real Tokyo,” with young and old, conservative and trendy all mingling together in a glorious melting pot of culture and food.
A welcome change of pace, Hakone is a mountain town in the Fuji area, just an hour shinkansen (bullet train) ride south of Tokyo. Known for its natural onsen (hot springs) and for the Hakone Shrine (a very old Shinto shrine marked by a beautiful red tori gate rising from Lake Ashi), Hakone was an ideal next stop for us to see a more "rural" side of Japan. A well connected bus system and painfully slow old train carried us around the many switchbacks surrounding the mountainous area that had more pocket neighborhoods than anyone could ever fully explore. There were many young Japanese couples around the area enjoying the sights and sounds - it felt like a great weekend-getaway kind of place to escape the urban sprawl of the major cities.
We didn’t take the “small town vibes” for granted. We researched and booked a night in a traditional pre-war inn called a ryokan (think low tables, tatami mats, sliding doors, and kimonos) with a private (very hot!) onsen looking over the surrounding mountains. Many tour books and websites emphasize the intrigue in staying in one of these inns. Not only to get a taste of a *truly* Japanese experience but also, I suspect, as a way to keep the traditions and inns alive - an important aspect of preserving the culture as the country sees more and more tourists and culture skews more and more international. We dined on an amazing kaiseki (the highest tier of Japanese cuisine, think locally sourced/foraged Japanese tapas arranged in beautiful preparations) that was served in our room by a lovely old lady with little-to-no English in her repertoire. We’re not sure what we ate, but we know we loved 90% of it!
Kyoto & Nara
Our shinkansen dropped us off in Kyoto Station on a balmy late afternoon, and we could immediately sense a different vibe than Tokyo. Although we saw many more foreigners in Kyoto than in Tokyo, it still felt as if we were in a truly authentic Japanese world. The city was mostly spared from WWII’s destruction and as a result it is a beautiful remix of ancient and modern. The city is almost completely flat and surrounded by mountains on three sides - making for great scenery at all times and making it extra walkable. The city is made up of a grid of many narrow alleys on which businesses and residences are interchangeable - the architecture here was almost completely uniform, I assume as part of a city-wide effort to preserve the traditional style. A walk down an ordinary Kyoto street brought us past unassuming little shinto shrines, gigantic department stores, open air markets, small restaurants of every imaginable cuisine, and through the middle of ancient temples. In Kyoto we enjoyed: an awesome free walking tour guided that us through the Gion (the most famous Geisha district in Japan), the bluest skies possible at Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), exploring the zen temple Tenryu-ji - famous for its preserved gardens (adjacent to the beautifully serene bamboo grove), and debating “hipster culture” in a handful of craft beer spots. We also ate THE. BEST. RAMEN. IN. THE. WORLD. at Ippudo (multiple times) and sought out a ramen shop not on every "best of" list for some true local flavor.
We made a short but sweet day trip to Nara, Japan’s first capital (founded in 710!), just south of Kyoto. Known for its 1,500+ native (and extra friendly) deer that enjoy free range of the city, Nara is also home to the Todai-ji temple—the largest and oldest wooden structure in the world. This was probably the most impressive temple we saw on our trip. We took in the glory of the daibutsu (the Great Buddha), sauntered through the beautiful Yoshikien garden, and feasted upon local delicious tonkatsu (pork cutlets).
Tokyo (Pt. 2)
Our return to Tokyo brought cold and rainy shopping days in Shinjuku, Akihabara, Kappabashi and Shibuya. That didn’t stop us from ducking into many interesting places like buildings with 12+ floors packed with manga (comics), video game arcades and pop culture trinkets galore. We experienced the large and small of Tokyo... from craning our necks up to see the gigantic and neon buildings of the Times Square-esque Kabukicho to squeezing onto some stools in the tiny bars of Golden Gai - a famously touristy drinking area that comprises of 4 short alleys that feature over 200 small themed bars. On our final day, Tokyo’s skies gave way to snow, bringing our whirlwind trip to a close, as if to say "sayonara, time to go home to sunny LA!”