Best of Japan

Team Rocket

Prepare for trouble! Make it quintuple!
Charles! Morgane! Satya! Randy! Sarah!
“Team Croquette”, blast off at the speed of light!
To visit Japan and see the sights!
Meowth! That’s right!

 
Here are my top memories from our two week trip to Japan in January 2016 , in chronological order:

Wandering from Shibuya to Shinjuku

Ok, I’m already cheating here because this isn’t really a single attraction… but the charm of this walk is worth mentioning.

On our very first day in Japan, we left our Airbnb in Shibuya early (thanks to the jet lag) and started the day with some tonkotsu ramen at Ichiran Ramen. This is a “fast-food” place open 24/7 where you first purchase food tickets from a machine at the entrance. Then you sit at a little cubicle with its own hot water tap to make green tea. You circle your preferences (everything from the amount of garlic and spicy red sauce to the texture of the noodles) on a sheet of paper that the waiters collect from a small window. When they deliver your order, they close a curtain to give you some privacy while you eat. It was a fun and unusual experience for us, and it tasted great too!

Replete, we wandered north up Cat Street to Omotesando Hills. We were charmed by the narrow winding alleys with tiny cars and cute buildings. For a city of over 13 million inhabitants, Tokyo was unbelievably stress-free. The streets were sparkling clean and pedestrian friendly. The only graffiti we saw were beautiful works of art in designated spaces around the Design Festa Gallery. Even as the day progressed and the streets got busier, we never felt the uneasiness that other urban jungles emanate. We only saw two homeless people during our entire trip, and they kept to themselves. We were amazed by how everybody was respectful of their environment and their peers. Nobody eats in the streets to keep them clean. People wear masks when they have a cold to prevent germs from spreading. They are well dressed, with nice shoes and felt coats in sober pastel tones. They converse politely and quietly. We could not understand the language (there was less English than we expected), but I had saved all the landmarks we wanted to see on My Maps and exported it to a kml file to access them offline from MAPS.ME, which worked perfectly with GPS, so we easily found our way around.

To talk weather just a little bit, January is one of the coldest months to visit Japan. On the bright side, it is also low season, so we never had to wait in line for anything. The temperature averaged five degrees Celsius, which was fine as long as we wore many layers and kept active. The cold made it even more gratifying to stop for some green tea or other warm street food along the way. On this particular walk we discovered the most amazing chou à la crème at Croquant Chou on Takeshita Street. We also took a break to soak up the sun doing some yoga in Yoyogi Park. We then dove back into the crowds of Shinjuku, the neighborhood north of Shibuya and found a tiny alley with an even tinier restaurant. We couldn’t read the menu, so we just pointed at the skewers we wanted and they grilled them in front of us: yakitori! Next we visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which has a free observation deck on the 40th floor. Why bother going to the Tokyo Skytree or the Tokyo Tower when this one is free?! Another pro of winter weather is that the skies are clear and blue, so we could see the entire city from above. Finally, we walked all the way back to Shibuya Crossing and experienced the night life. All and all we must have walked over 20km that day and forged some of the best memories.

Furusato Food and Culture Festival

The Furusato Matsuri Food and Culture Festival is an event I stumbled upon while browsing TokyoCheapo.com. “Furusato Matsuri” roughly translates to “Festival of the Hometowns”, so it is like a collection of festivals. It is held annually at the Tokyo Dome, home of the Yomiuri Giants baseball team. The entire field area is packed with food stands selling dishes from all over Japan. We tried all sorts of things we had never seen before. I can’t even tell you what they were because everything was only written in Japanese and nobody spoke English. At any rate, everything was delicious! As we ate, we immersed ourselves with Japanese culture; there was a stage where performers from the different prefectures came to present their traditional arts: dance, drums, theater, costumes… The center-piece was a giant colorful sculpture that lit up in the dark. This event is not advertised as a tourist destination and we were the only visible tourists in sight. It was neat to experience the real deal with the locals. The density of the crowd on the stadium floor was such that we were ripped apart and had to set a meeting point to regroup later. Yet the Japanese efficiency stood true to its reputation: we bought tickets in no time, the lines moved swiftly, there was no littering anywhere, the staircases were set up as one-ways to make entering and exiting the facilities easy. When we left it was dark and we admired the Tokyo Dome City Illuminations. What an epic adventure.

Kyoto Airbnb

Apart from being centrally located, our Tokyo Airbnb was disappointing: it was tiny and cold, the beds were uncomfortable, the shower was moldy and would run out of hot water after five minutes (we were five people), we weren’t allowed to make a sound because the grumpy old lady downstairs would not hesitate to call the police… In contrast, our Kyoto Airbnb was impeccable. For $28 USD per person per night (20% more than the previous one) we had all the modern Japanese amenities. We had a washer in the unit to do our laundry and the shower (this time with unlimited hot water) converted into a clothes dryer. Yes, you read that right, the entire bathroom could be sealed to run hot air to dry clothes. The toilet had one of those fancy heated seats that plays music and has an integrated bidet with nozzles that spray warm water upwards at various pressures and angles on the press of a button. Now that was a revelation. Our new life mission is to install one of these in our home! The kitchen was minimalistic, with a stovetop but no oven except for a toaster oven. The beds had full mattresses. The heater worked great. There was a giant TV with channels playing weird Japanese game shows where people drove a remote controlled car with a cactus strapped to the front into each other’s derrière (not that we would care). Everything was new and spotless. It was also perfectly located, just a block away from the major bus, subway and train lines. We could walk to downtown Kyoto in 10-15 minutes. I miss waking up each morning to get a fresh cheese baguette and pastries at the next door Oreno Pan Bakery. Chisa, the Airbnb owner, and her team did everything to make our stay flawless. I’m sure any of her properties are amazing, so you should save this wishlist for when you inevitably go to Kyoto.

Gear

For Randy’s birthday, we went to see a show called Gear at Art Complex 1928. It is a miniature venue which seats at most 100 people, yet the production value rivaled shows we have seen in Vegas, NYC and London. Every inch of the stage, including the walls and ceiling, was decorated to make it look like an abandoned toy factory. There was an elaborate setup of projectors that could highlight every detail of the scene like an x-ray machine, or convert the whole place into the Milky Way. The center of the stage was occupied by a giant gear set flat on the floor, which would rotate while the actors stood on it. They even had a fan at the back that sent confetti flying into the audience. We were able to understand the story because it was delivered without words, using only music and miming. Four male actors each played “robodroids” who had continued to work in the toy factory despite it being deserted for hundreds of years. They performed their duties in perfect synchrony, repeating the tasks they had been programmed to do. At some point they discovered a doll who sparked to life and turned into a woman. The actress danced beautifully, mixing ballet and contemporary moves, and her dress was embedded with an array of LED lights that followed the music. It was hypnotizing to watch her. One by one, she triggered each robot’s creativity. One turned out to be a mime, the next a break-dancer, the third a juggler and the fourth a magician. They were clearly all professionals in their art and it was captivating to watch.

Iwatayama Monkey Park

We never quite understood how monkeys came to overtake Mount Arashiyama on the west side of Kyoto. Perhaps it’s the precursor to Planet of the Apes… There are now over 170 macaques (each with a given name) living a happy life at Iwatayama Monkey Park. They get to sunbathe at the top of the mountain with one of the nicest panoramas of Kyoto. Tourists like ourselves hike all the way up to feed them apples and bananas. They are free to roam and will come stand right next to people. However, we were instructed not to pet them or make eye contact as they can be quite aggressive. They fight amongst themselves and even snatch fruit away from the little ones. The hike in the forest combined with the breathtaking view and the entertaining monkeys made for a unique and memorable morning.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

We did not go see real geishas during our trip, but we saw loads of tourists dressed up as geishas! Apparently people from all around Japan come to Kyoto to rent a kimono and get their hair and makeup done. Then they walk around the city taking pictures on their phones using selfie sticks. As a matter of fact, selfie sticks are considered a hazard and banned in most places. The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a prized location for picture taking. The majestic bamboos filter the light to create a mysterious atmosphere. Actually, all of Arashiyama is picturesque; the Oi River nested in the mountains and the variety of temples and shrines are lovely. Moreover, there are ice cream stalls everywhere, so you really can’t go wrong.

Dining Downtown Kyoto

Yelp and TripAdvisor are not great in Japan; the restaurants represented are mostly tourist traps. We found it was much better to walk around until we found an appealing place, then cross-check it on tabelog.com to get ratings from the locals. At first we stuck to places with English menus, but as we got braver we dared going to places that were only in Japanese. In those cases, we would either ask the waiters to serve us their favorite dishes or use Google Translate. This app has an awesome feature that allows you to take a picture of any sign or menu and translate it live. Here are some other general things to note about restaurants in Japan. Dinner is on average three times more expensive than lunch, often for a very similar menu. Restaurants can be minuscule and well hidden so look out for red lanterns and half curtains to find them. Fancy places can require reservations months in advance (it was low season and we didn’t go to Michelin star restaurants so we never had that issue). Nice places will often have you take your shoes off at the entrance and leave them in lockers. In some fast-food places you have to buy food tickets at a vending machine at the front. It is not customary to leave tips.

Downtown Kyoto was a particularly amazing area for eating out. Nishiki Market and Teramachi Street were bustling with food stalls. We awed at all the weird looking fish and pickled vegetables. We enjoyed mochi (sticky rice cakes), taiyaki (fish-shaped pastries filled with custard and sweet potato), furikake (a seasoning made from dried fish, sesame, seaweed and chili), umeboshi (marinated plums) and even tako tamago (baby octopus on a stick stuffed with a hard boiled quail egg)! Many facades had displays with plastic replicas of the food they served (very practical!). We got tempted by one showcasing a variety of sundaes, including a $500 USD tropical cup which was so big that it had a pineapple on top instead of a cherry… Heaven on earth! Pontocho Alley and Kiyamachi Street followed a cute little canal and were both lined with quaint restaurants. For example, we went to one called Shishikin which specialized in Kyoto beef. They go to an auction every morning to pick a whole animal which they butcher themselves. We sampled five different cuts of steak, each one melting in the mouth. Another place we went to which was recommended by a friend is Kyoto Gogyo. They serve a one of a kind “burnt kogashi ramen” with a black broth made from caramelized soy sauce, garlic and lard – exquisitely umami! Everywhere we went was amazing. Not just the Japanese restaurants, but also the ethnic ones. We ate delicious Indian curries, Korean bibimbap and Spanish tapas. Also worth mentioning is that the French bakeries were phenomenal. All in all we managed to diversify our diet and did not feel like we were craving anything from home (although fresh fruits and vegetables were expensive). The only thing I got tired of is red bean… it is in everything!

Hiking Fushimi Inari

Our last hike started at a touristy destination: the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha. It is renowned for its vermillion torii gates and the bottom section was super crowded with tourists taking selfies. However, very few ventured past the first section to hike the four km trail that loops up and around Mount Inari. We hiked in total tranquility through the 10,000 gates that have been donated over the years by families and businesses. The bright red of the gates contrasted with the surrounding forest in a surreal way. At the various shrines along the path we saw many fox statues and fountains (foxes are the sacred messengers of Inari Okami, the shinto god of rice, sake, tea and fertility). We walked briskly as it was by far the coldest day of the trip. It was windy and even snowed a little. In the end we watched the glowing sun set into the mountains. Farewell, Japan!

More pictures

Here are some more photographs from our trip. Click on the play button to watch. You can also click on the fullscreen button (bottom right) to immerse yourself in our adventure. Enjoy! Best of Japan Photo Album