WHERE IN THE WORLD: Japan 2018

When Alex and I first met, I asked him what his dream holiday would be. He’s not great with hypotheticals, but I eventually coerced him into giving me an answer. He said he would like to visit Japan. Being the obsessive person that I am, I latched onto that and decided that I would make it happen, declaring in Spring 2017 that we were going there. So we scrimped and saved and planned for nearly eighteen months, and on Sunday the 4th of November, we took off for the trip of a lifetime.

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Over the next two weeks, we walked, ate, saw and learned A LOT. Here’s the breakdown of what we did.

Days 0 & 1: We took off from Heathrow at 11:05 on Sunday with FinnAir, stopping in Helsinki before continuing to Tokyo. We landed in the morning, but by the time we got to Shinjuku, checked into our Airbnb and unpacked what we could, it was dinner time. Alex wasn’t feeling very well (long distance travel always messes with him), so I ran out to a supermarket for supplies, and we stayed in for the evening.

Tokyo

Four days simply wasn’t enough time in Tokyo. We have both said that we could have spent our entire trip there and not run out of interesting things to do, and that’s saying something as we’re both quite picky about what we do when we travel. Here’s a quick break-down of those days:

Day 2: we walked to Meiji Shrine, our first shrine of the trip. The gardens were really peaceful and not nearly as crowded as the shrine. We then went to the National Garden and marveled at the flower displays until it started pouring down with rain. We tried to sit in a cafe and then duck into the greenhouse to wait it out, but it wouldn’t pass, so we walked through it to our sushi making class, the first of the two Airbnb Experiences we would enjoy on the trip. It was so much fun, and we would happily recommend it. I was especially praised for my sushi-making skills, much to Alex’s chagrin (we’re really competitive).

When we travel, we really like to build in time in the afternoons for a rest, so we headed back to the Airbnb for a quick doze. Then it was time for a super-authentic dinner at McDonalds before we headed to the Robot Restaurant, which was the anticipated highlight of our trip.

Let me tell you, this Robot Cabaret business is WEIRD. Think Darth Maul dancing to hip hop and pointing lasers into the audience. Think giant animatronic snakes and frogs eating the actors. It was so strange, but so entertaining. The lightbulb cocktail didn’t hurt. It’s also in the middle of the Golden Gai, which is the closest thing Tokyo has to a red light district, so after the show you get to walk around and have random people try to hand you flyers for anime-themed strip clubs.

Day 3: This was the second of our Airbnb Experiences, a samurai arts class just a bit out of the city. We decided to walk there despite the fact that it would take nearly an hour and a half (we were determined not to come back a stone heavier from all the food). The experience itself was amazing, with the perfect blend of history, culture and martial arts. Alex got to eat humble pie again because I was *yet again* the star student, praised in particular for my skills with the double shortswords. Alex prefered the katana, but he didn’t get a round of applause after his final combo, so you tell me who won that class. Though the sensei did tell him he looked like Tom Cruise, and his ego has demanded that he take that comment (which was clearly a joke) as serious.

After the class we walked to the nearest train station to head out to Kichijoji, a suburb a few miles east of Shinjuku. The streets were lined with cute artisan shops and coffee bars, and we popped into the Margaret Howell cafe there for lunch. We were initially disappointed with how limited the menu was, but everything we had was exceptional, so we were happy. Then we walked down to Inokashira Park to see the swan paddleboats before heading back into then city.

That evening we went to the Metropolitan Government Building on the other side of Shinjuku to see the views. They were fine, but it was rather crowded, so we didn’t get any good pictures. Then we stopped at Tokyo Mentsu-dan for udon on our way back. This place was grimy and full of cigarette smoke and a bit sticky, and absolutely none of the menu was in English, but damn if it wasn’t one of the best meals we had in Tokyo. Highly recommend.

Day 4: Thursday was all about Harajuku! We walked down from Shinjuku, which was a long walk, but it was worth it due to all the calories we would consume that day. We started by just wandering along the main streets popping into shops. I bought a couple of sweaters, and we grabbed souvenirs for a few family members at the Japanese equivalent of Poundland (because we’re cheap ass family members).

As we came into the more commercial part of Harajuku, we’re pretty certain we saw Sue Perkins of Bake Off fame walking into a building. We tried to follow her, but it was a private photography studio, and she never replied to my tweet, so the mystery remains unsolved. Disappointed, we made our way to the Kawaii Monster Cafe to lift our spirits. Honestly, we were expecting the food to be gross given how heavily they had leaned into the colourful menu and bright plastic decorations, but it was surprisingly good. Some people go after dark instead when it turns into more of a bar/club situation, but that’s very much not our scene, so we were happy to marvel at the monsters at midday.

After lunch, we did a bit more shopping before wandering up to Yoyogi Park. We walked around there for a bit deciding what to do with the rest of our day so that we could fit everything in. We decided to walk back to Harajuku for kiseki-style pancakes, then walk down to Shibuya to see the famous busy crossing in action. (Honestly, it wasn’t that much busier than other junctions in Tokyo. Oh well.) Then we took the train back up to Shinjuku and went to the local branch of Coco Ichiban-ya for some tonkatsu curry.

Day 5: Feeling the lack of rest the day before, we had a lazy morning, forfeiting breakfast and opting for an early lunch instead. For this, we had to travel out of the city, one stop south on the bullet train in Shin-Yokohama. Here we went to the Ramen Museum, which was one of the coolest things I’ve seen. When you first walk in, it’s just a bunch of bowls and chopsticks with the history of ramen. But go downstairs and it’s a different story entirely. The giant room is made to look like a cityscape, with dusky skies projected on the ceiling and storefronts set up over two levels. At each stand/restaurant, you can choose your ramen portion and pay for it at a vending machine, giving your ticket to the person who seats you (this is a very common way of ordering in Japan). Half portions were available at most places, and the museum provided a handy guide to the different types of ramen on offer (soy or miso, thick or thin noodles, rich or light broth, spice level, etc.), so we chose two different places, splitting half portions of two different types at the first place and each getting a half portion of the same one at the second place. It was incredible to taste how different the ramen could be from place to place with just a couple of simple changes.

As we were eating at the second place, some guys in their twenties with a camera and a microphone came up and asked if we would be happy to be in the background of what they were filming. We said sure, but something must have gotten lost in translation as they ended up filming us straight on. I refused to eat until they stopped, convinced they were doing some special about Westerners trying to use chopsticks or something. I still don’t know what they were filming for, but what I do know is that I said to Alex as we landed in Tokyo that I didn’t want to end up on some Japanese reality show, and I fear that it may have happened anyway.

After we finished up at the museum, we went back to Tokyo and tried to go to the Imperial Palace, but it was closed for maintenance. Instead we walked for an hour or so up to Senso-ji temple, where we enjoyed matcha ice cream in the market just outside. Then we headed to Akihabara, the Tokyo equivalent of Times Square, where we went into a bunch of anime shops looking for something for a friend. We went to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant called Gansozushi, which was excellent. Then we got one of the massive cheese tarts from Pablo and took it back to our Airbnb with us.

Nagano

One of the things we wanted to make sure we did was get out of the city and into nature at some point on our trip. So after our Tokyo stay, we headed northwest to the mountains of the Nagano prefecture.

Day 6: We took the train first thing in the morning to Yudanaka, where we checked into Aburaya Tousen. The hotel looked kind of standard from the outside, but inside we were in for a truly luxury experience. Our room was massive, with a small table that would later be replaced by the futon-style mat beds Japan is famous for. We had a balcony with a private onsen, or hot spring, overlooking the river and the town.

But before we let ourselves indulge in the luxuries of the resort, it was time to hunt down some snow monkeys. We took a taxi to the snow monkey park, where we then had a short walk up to find them. The scenery was absolutely stunning; we went during red leaf season, so the mountains were on fire with reds and oranges. The snow monkeys were naturally avoiding the people, so there were only a couple of them to look at, and none of them were in the hot springs. But the walk back down the mountain was worth the journey, and we arrived back at the resort just before dinnertime.

Before dinner, we were told to change into our yakatas (basically more casual kimonos), and then we were escorted to our private dining room for a nine-course kaiseki dinner. Some things were better than others, but every item was locally sourced and an entirely new experience for us. Then we went into the public resort onsen for a few minutes, but since public nudity isn’t my thing and swimsuits were prohibited, we quickly retreated to the safety of our private one. Our room had been turned down, and the futons ended up being the most comfortable beds we had the entire trip. (This is more of an endorsement of the resort than of the style of bed, as you’ll see when we get to Hiroshima.)

Day 7: It was up bright and early the next morning for a buffet breakfast before taking the train to Kyoto. Along the way we stopped in Kanazawa, where the gorgeous Kenroku-en Garden took our breath away. It was then on to Kyoto, where we arrived around dinnertime. We checked into our Airbnb, an incredibly comfortable apartment close to some major attractions, and grabbed a dinner from 7/11. This would happen more and more as the trip went on. See my tips at the end for more on 7/11 in Japan.

Kyoto

Kyoto is made out to be the “authentic” Japan, more so than Tokyo at least, but we found the opposite to be true. There are lots of shrines, yes, but those exist all over Japan. There are geishas, but only three houses remain active, and they’re rarely seen. You could, however, throw a peanut and hit a dozen tourists walking around in kimonos. More people spoke English in Kyoto than anywhere else we went, and all we found were artisan bakeries and trendy minimalist boutiques and overpriced coffee shops. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed Kyoto a lot. We definitely liked the slower pace. But don’t go there thinking you’re getting a more authentic Japanese experience. If you want that, go somewhere the locals actually outnumber the tourists, like Tokyo or Osaka.

Day 8: Our main checklist items for Kyoto were the Fushimi Inari Shrine and Nishiki Market, but we did neither on our first day. Instead we went to Arashiyama, where the bamboo forest and some more snow monkeys awaited. The bamboo forest was disappointing, as it was a path with bamboo on either side for about ten metres, not really a forest. The bamboo was also being harvested in several places. On the plus side it was really just a path, so we didn’t have to pay for it, and we wouldn’t have found the Tenryu-ji Temple without it. Then we hiked up the mountain and along the river to the observation deck, which was probably the best view we got in Japan (in my opinion). From there we went to the monkey park, which was far more successful than in Nagano. There were so many more monkeys, they weren’t afraid to be close to the visitors, and there were even some babies playing. It was definitely the superior monkey experience. We ate lunch at Arashiyama Curry before heading back into Kyoto proper.

We were really feeling tired at this point, and our feet were rather achy, so we decided to have a relaxed evening. We found a massage parlour nearby and booked in for later that evening, eating chocolate in the room until time to go. Then afterward we stopped at a proper grocery store for some food on our way back to the room.

Day 9: Tuesday was all about exploring Kyoto proper. The trains are really poorly laid out compared to Tokyo (think Chicago versus Atlanta), so we mostly walked. We started at a trendy coffee shop I had found on Instagram, and we quickly learned that trendy coffee does not equal good coffee. At least not good enough for how much it cost. We made our way to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, but irony of all ironies, it was also closed for a maintenance day, so we moved on.

On the way back, we saw a sign for a “cheese latte,” and Alex couldn’t help himself. We stopped and ordered one, with an iced apple cider for me, and we learned that by “cheese” they meant “cream cheese swirled into the whipped cream that goes on top.” Which, to be fair, was preferable to a cheddar or brie latte, so I was happy. But Alex seemed unreasonably disappointed.

We hit up Nishiki Market for lunch and some more souvenirs. We got some nice chopsticks, a tea set for Alex’s mum, and some nice facial cloths for my sister in law. More importantly though, we ate takoyaki (fried balls of octopus) and cheese pastries shaped like hedgehogs. It was glorious. We strolled down Pontocho Alley and along the river, then settled in a park to rest for a while until dinner. Ramen Sen-no-Kaze was well reviewed, but we didn’t expect the wait we found. They give you no indication of how long you’ll be waiting, but we were the sixth or seventh party in line, and we ended up waiting nearly an hour and a half for a spot. As atrocious as the wait was though, the ramen was incredible. Since we now consider ourselves ramen experts thanks to our museum education, we can definitively say this ramen fucking rules.

Day 10: For our last full day in Kyoto, we headed directly to Fushimi Inari shrine, the famous path lined with thousands of red torii, or arches. We hiked up as far as seemed worth it, though we probably only went about a third of the way to the top. It was incredibly crowded, with people stopping constantly to wait for people to move out of shot, then getting angry at people who didn’t automatically stop behind them. It was, however, gorgeous, and it’s a great stop for anyone headed to Kyoto. I also discovered I was matching the arches, so naturally I had to pose with them.

From there we walked through a large cemetery to the Kiyomizo-dei Temple, which was also stunning. Some school children asked for a photo with Alex, probably because he was the tallest person they had ever seen, and that’s become the highlight of the trip for me. We went to Smile Burger for a delicious burger lunch before continuing on to the Zenrinji temple and gardens. The gardens here ended up being one of my favourite stops on the trip; there was so much colour and beauty packed into such a tiny area. Then we walked up the Philosopher’s Path, which follows a small river, back up to Kyoto proper.

We walked back into town and decided we wanted to spend as much time as possible in our cosy Airbnb (because that’s obviously what you do when you’re on your last night in a gorgeous foreign city), so we stopped for some takeaway sushi from Sushi Otawa on the way back, eating our rolls in bed with Netflix on.

Osaka

If we went back to Japan, I don’t know that I’d go back to Osaka, at least not to stay. It’s incredibly close to Kyoto, and there’s not a ton to do. After a week and a half of holiday, we were done just aimlessly wandering. We wanted actual things to do. But nonetheless we had a good experience there. Here’s what we did.

Day 11: First thing on Thursday we woke up and took the train to Osaka, which was only a twenty minute train ride. We got a locker at the station and went to Osaka Castle. We didn’t go inside, but the surrounding park is beautiful, and it was a lovely crisp day out, so we just wandered for a bit and got some ice cream before heading back to the station. We ate lunch at a German restaurant on the 16th floor of Osaka train station, because our bodies were craving something a bit more meat-and-potatoes, before going to check in at our Airbnb. In the evening, I had to do a couple of hours of work, which we did at the Starbucks in the train station due to wifi restrictions at the Airbnb. We stopped at Family Mart for some food on the way back and ate in the apartment.

Day 12: One of the main attractions in Osaka is Dotonbori Street, which is famous for its street food. We framed our day around here, opting for a day of grazing instead of one meal. We started at Hozenji Shrine, went shopping in Shinsaibashi Arcade, and grabbed all sorts of yummy bits from Dotonbori Street. The highlights included some great gyoza, cream cheese gelato, and something that resembled a corn dog but was actually fried cheese covered in tiny chunks of fried potato with cheese sauce and spices sprinkled on top. It was one of the culinary highlights of my life to be honest.

Once we were full, we went to the Amerika Mura district, which is mostly quirky cafes and vintage shops. I spent most of the afternoon trying to convince Alex to buy a denim jacket so he looks like less of a square, but it didn’t work. Oh well. We stopped at Streamer for some lattes and an Oreo brownie before hunting down the famous Rikuro’s fluffy cheesecake, which we then devoured.

That evening, we went to a restaurant called M near Fukushima station, where I proceeded to have the best meal of my life. It was a beef restaurant, where we grilled wagyu beef right there at the table. The garlic butter rice was a real highlight, and the sake we had was so good that we ended up buying a bottle at duty free on the way home. It was definitely the most expensive meal of the trip at around £130 total, but it was so worth it.

We ended the night by visiting Umeda Sky Garden, a super tall pair of towers connected at the top by an observation deck. It involved a perilous elevator ride and then a trip on an escalator suspended between the two towers, but the views were actually pretty great, despite Osaka not having any major landmarks to look at. It was significantly less crowded than the one we went to in Tokyo, so we were able to loiter by the windows and watch the trains come in.

Himeji & Hiroshima

Hiroshima as a whole isn’t hugely interesting in my opinion, but the Peace Park was definitely an intense and educational experience, so if that’s your thing, it might be worth it. Otherwise, it’s probably not quite worth adding this to the itinerary as it’s quite a ways out of the way.

Day 13: On Saturday we had another early start to get to the station. We took the train out to Himeji to see the castle (I kept calling it Takeshi’s Castle, so I apologise to anyone who thought I was going to be on a game show). Then we carried on to Hiroshima (on the Hello Kitty-themed bullet train!), where we found a locker and got on a train to go out to Miyajima, an island accessible by ferry from Miyajimaguchi. Here we saw the famous tori in the water, and we also got to pet loads of deer who were just wandering through the crowd. Their antlers were sadly clipped off – probably for guest safety, but it was still sad to see.

After we got back to Hiroshima, we took a bus to our hostel. There was a mix-up with the Booking.com listing, so we didn’t have a private bathroom like we thought we would, which made getting up in the night really awkward, and the futon-style bed was horrendously uncomfortable. But before our sleepless night, we had an excellent dinner at Okonomiyaki Jugem. Okonomiyaki is a large, flat food made up of egg, shredded cabbage, meat, and sauces cooked on a flat-top grill. It was absolutely spectacular. The guys inside didn’t speak any English, just held up two fingers and pointed us to a table, fifteen minutes later bringing over plates of food. If you have dietary requirements, this may not work for you, but we were happy to let them feed us what they wanted. It was incredible. Then it was back to the hostel for a night of basically no sleep at all.

Day 14: The next morning, we went to the Peace Park in Hiroshima and visited the memorial to WWII. This was surprisingly emotional for me, and I spent a lot of time thinking about it over the next few days. We took a tram back to Hiroshima station, where we grabbed lunch and took the bullet train back to Tokyo. This took the entire afternoon. We had cleverly reserved our seats on the side of the train where we would pass Mount Fuji so we could see it, but we had less cleverly forgotten that it would be dark by the time we passed, so we didn’t see it at all. We arrived in Tokyo just before eight, grabbing the train out to the airport and checking into our final hotel, ordering room service for dinner.

The next morning it was back to the UK, again via Helsinki.

Overall, this is one of my favourite holidays that I’ve taken. We got to experience a culture completely unlike ours, see lots of different places, and experience everything from active classes to relaxing massages. It will be tough to top this one, and I’m honestly not sure I want to.

Top tips for traveling to Japan:

  • GET THE JR PASS! We only paid for one bus fare, one tram fare, and two local train fares. Everything else was included in our pass, including the ferry out to Miyajima. It was well worth it.

  • Stay in Airbnbs or hotels that will provide pocket wifi units. Our plan would have been horrendous if we had paid to use it in Japan, but the pocket wifi was incredible. Only one place we stayed had a limit anywhere near what we could hit, and we constantly needed it to figure out where we were going.

  • Eat at restaurants with pictures. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s actually a big thing in Japan to have pictures of your food, or even artificial models. Plus, it makes ordering a hell of a lot easier.

  • Get yen. We got more than we thought we would need, and we blew through it before we even left Tokyo. The implication is that Japan is tech-forward and therefore most places would take card, but we found a surprising number of places did not.

  • Use Airbnb experiences. Japan, especially Tokyo, can be really overwhelming in terms of the sheer number of things there are to do, and the Airbnb experiences we ended up doing were incredible. The hosts are super knowledgeable and keen to share their culture with travelers.

  • Stay in Shinjuku. It really is the best connected part of the city, and it’s really close to a lot of the major things to do. We even walked to Harajuku, though it was a long walk.

  • Don’t turn your nose up at 7/11. Family Mart and 7/11 are convenience stores, but the food is great, and it’s cheap. Japan is not an affordable place to visit, and eating an average of one meal per day here and most of our breakfasts in our Airbnbs, we saved a lot of money and still got to eat everything we wanted.

  • Don’t have high hopes for hotel breakfasts. They cater a lot to the Chinese tourists, not so much Westerners, and Chinese breakfast is VERY different to Western breakfast.

  • Take advantage of train station lockers, but don’t count on them. They are very popular with Japanese people during the workday, so they’re often taken. The couple of times we used them, we had to do laps and basically follow someone to their locker. Not ideal. Sometimes needs must, and they’re handy when they’re available, but be smarter than us and don’t make plans that revolve around a locker being available.

  • Understand the weather. The temperature doesn’t fluctuate much between day and night in the cities, and it stays warmer much later in the year, so you probably don’t need those bulky sweaters in your bag.

  • Don’t worry about the language barrier. Most people speak enough English to help you in that specific context. For example, the 7/11 staff will be able to tell you your total and ask if you want your food hot or cold. The train station staff will be able to tell you destinations and times and discuss routes. Your hotel receptionist will be able to tell you most things about the local area. Even if you try learning a little Japanese, they will probably respond to you in English.

Cute emoji mani I got before I left!

Cute emoji mani I got before I left!

Have any questions? Email me at gale.samanthaj@gmail.com and let me know!

TravelSamantha Gale