After two weeks in Japan visiting Kyoto, Osaka, Wakayama, Hakone, and Tokyo, I am happy to be home. There’s still plenty I miss from that country, on which I’ll go more into detail later, but overall it really is nice to be back in my own town. One major takeaway from this journey: consideration for others. No matter where I went, people were kind—not just nice in a perfunctory way, but kind in a manner that let me know they honestly cared. Their love for their country overflowed into everything I experienced from food to festival. This was our second time to Japan, and I know it definitely will not be the last.
We technically started our adventure in Tokyo after flying into Narita Airport. We went through the effortless process of swapping out our JR vouchers for the pass that would allow us to ride the Shinkansen that same evening 3-4 hours to Kyoto Station, where my exchange sister’s father picked us up. This was our first time on a bullet train, and now we’re both fans. Though we had the added perk of Green Car tickets, it was still nice being able to kick back and watch the scenery fly by as we ate meals purchased on the train.
Once in Kyoto, we stayed with our family friends for four days. During the daytime we went out and explored the sights, and most evenings ate dinner with the family and drank copious amounts of beer with my exchange sister’s dad.
Fushimi Inari Shrine / Trail
Since this was my second time in Kyoto and Kwoo’s first, I chose a few favorites to show him. He didn’t want to spend all our time at temples and shrines, so the ones I chose were carefully picked. Fushimi Inari easily made my list with its endless trail of red torii and steady climb to the top shrine. Hiking it in the cool spring was so much less painful than when I did it in the summer with Draggle a few years prior.
The big porch is another favorite spot of mine. Unfortunately, it’s currently under construction, so we didn’t purchase tickets to go inside this time around. That just means I’ll be back a third time! We wandered around outside looking at the other buildings.
A first for us both, I had been meaning to come to the “Silver” Pavilion after visiting Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, on my last trip. You’ll quickly notice that the building is not actually silver, but it still looks beautiful amidst the impeccable landscaping and gardens. I think I might actually like Ginkaku-ji more since we went earlier in the morning before the crowds hit. We actually had time to linger between areas appreciating the garden art and relaxing as we liked.
Daimonji Mountain Trail
Daimonjiyama sits just behind Ginkaku-ji, which is another reason why I chose the temple for our itinerary. We trekked under an hour up the trail past a group of elementary students on a field trip, several elderly on their way down from the early morning wave, and landmarks indicative of the fall Fire Festival held every year on the mountain. If you’ve been to the event in person or seen it displayed as it sometimes is on television, Daimonjiyama hosts the festival with the gigantic flaming character for “big” on its slope, visible from the city. We passed the pulleys for the logs used in the presentation, and once at the top, walked along the many pedestals that form the character. I absolutely recommend this hike to anyone who visits Kyoto since it provides exercise, relief from crowds, and a fantastic view of the area.
My exchange family convinced us to go to a non-verbal performance at the GEAR art complex in Kyoto. There’s no barrier to enjoying its display of talents. Consider it a musical, but without actual lyrics, and accompanied by juggling, magic tricks, break dancing, and mimes. I don’t want to spoil the content of the show too much, but to be brief, the story tells of an abandoned toy factory, the four roboroid workers who still maintain it, and the doll they stumble upon. The performance has gone on since 2012 and includes interchangeable actors so you have plenty of days and times to choose from.
Since we were down in the city in the evening for GEAR anyways, Megumi recommended we check out Pontocho Alley. She described it as “very Japanese.” And she’s right, in a sense. As soon as we turned the corner into the alley, we figured out what she meant. The streets here are narrow, best for walking single-file, and all along its sides are countless small restaurants and bars. At night, their doorways invite you in with lit lanterns and cigarette smoke. It’s difficult to take pictures here since stopping means holding up others behind you.
Arashiyama was another area I had been to before with my family, but I chose this time to go again and try out a few new activities, including the infamous bamboo grove, a tofu restaurant, and the monkey park.
The bamboo grove connects to the exit of Tenryu-ji, so it seemed a shame to skip out on this temple. I didn’t feel too bad bringing KWoo here for the first time since there was plenty to enjoy in the exploration of the many buildings on property, as well as the expansive garden.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
I wish I had woken up earlier on this day so I could have seen the grove in the early morning. Any dreams of the perfect picture were shattered by the throngs of people clogging every section of the walkway. Still beautiful. Megumi quote: “I don’t know why the bamboo is so special. We have it like this in Wakayama.” I know, Megumi, I know. I should have listened.
Iwatayama Monkey Park and Trail
After filling up on tofu at lunch, we headed over to Iwatayama and the twenty-minute trail to the monkey park. Though initially a bit steep, the slope evens out and there are plenty of switch backs and benches along the way for those of you less inclined to hiking. The path rewards you with a view of Arashiyama and nearby Kyoto, as well as a structure where you can purchase snacks to feed the monkeys in a specified area. Those buggers demand their food and don’t even thank you for it.
If you don’t like tofu, I wonder if you’ll change your mind with a meal like this. The dipping sauces and side dishes complement the simplicity of the tofu, which in itself is presented a couple of ways. The bulk of the tofu comes to a boil in the clay pot. You also get it in a side remade into a creamy, almost pudding-like quality. Arashiyama has plenty of tofu restaurants like this if you’re inclined to try.
If you’ve been with me since my first Japan trip in 2014, you’ll know that I only visited the aquarium and the zoo when last in Osaka. This time, I had the time and company to check out the popular shopping areas of the city, Dotonbori, Den-Den Town, and Shinsekai. We unfortunately had to be back home for a farewell dinner by 7PM, so didn’t get to see the area at night with all its lights and colors. Next time!
If you don’t like crowds or shopping, then Dotonbori is most assuredly not for you. People are everywhere pointing at the outrageously large signs, eating street food, and pulling luggage. I had okonomiyaki and takoyaki on my mind. We took the obligatory Glico man picture, then slowly walked along the streets (not that we had any choice) admiring the storefronts and trying to pick “the” place to eat our food. We opted for Konamon Dotonbori Museum for takoyaki, then lucked out on a side street when we saw a line of people outside a still-closed restaurant. The place turned out to be an okonomiyaki restaurant, where they cooked the food for you (good for us) and decorated them with mayo faces.
Shinsekai is another shopping area near the Tsutenkaku, which you can pay to go up. We arrived here at a bit of an odd in between time—too late for lunch, too early for dinner. Many of the shops were closed. So we opted for coffee at a little cafe run by two old women smoking in the back before we returned to Kyoto to say goodbye to Megumi’s parents.
After Kyoto, we were off for Wakayama with Megumi and her baby daughter to meet her husband and his family. The contrast between city and country was pretty neat to see back to back. Megumi also drove us around to several Wakayama landmarks along the coast. If you love seafood, Wakayama is the place to be with its bountiful and fresh fish. They’re also known for growing citrus of all kinds, notably the hassaku orange.
Our first stop was Sandanbeki, where Japanese pirates once moored their boats. Today, you can purchase a ticket to take an elevator down to the caves and see both the natural caves created by the ocean waves, as well as the tunnels used by the pirates.
Translated as a place of “a thousand tatami mats,” Senjojiki looks a bit like a miniature Grand Canyon with its layered towers of rocks. We joined others in clambering over everything we could (with Meg’s baby in tow) and pretending like we were cresting mountain peaks.
Since it was still spring in Japan, we didn’t break out our swimsuits and use this beach like you might expect. Shirahama Beach is still beautiful, though, with its white sand (brought over from Australia) and the surrounding Japanese flora.
Off in the distance, we could see Engetsu Island, and I’d really like the chance to someday go out and kayak around it, perhaps even climb onto it. I’ve seen some pictures of people doing just that, and it looks amazing.
Shirasaki Ocean Park
Last of our rock wonderlands was Shirasaki Ocean Park, which we actually drove past the first time since the entrance looked like it was under construction. If you’re here anytime near this post, don’t be tricked like we were! You can drive right up and in, and it was free of cost when we went. The bone-white limestone towers over and almost into the ocean. Locals call it the “Japanese Aegean Sea,” which I think suits the scenery.
Mochi Hori Event
Particularly special about this trip was the chance to participate in Mochi Hori, an event where you toss away your bad luck. Traditionally, it was mochi being tossed. Then the crowds around you would try to catch the mochi for good luck. I guess one person’s bad luck is another’s good luck? Wakayama‘s twist on the tradition is to basically throw anything from mochi to whole loaves of bread and even tissue boxes. Pros know to knock aside bulky items like loaves and tissue boxes, instead aiming to catch all the snacks they can. Others have a strategy of picking up anything that falls to the ground, which can be a lot depending on the crowd.
We had the fortune of participating as both guests and hosts. The first time we went to a neighborhood event and tried to catch what we could. Being the amateurs we are, we each only caught 3-4 items. Then we got to play host at Meg’s husband’s home and toss out boxes of goods to the people below us. If you’re ever invited to join in on this event, I highly recommend you do it!
Tip: don’t be fooled by the grandmas. They’re strong and aggressive, and some even wear special aprons with gigantic pockets instead of using bags.
Our time in Wakayama came too quickly to an end, and we bid our farewell to Meg before boarding the bullet train once more. We saved one night for Hakone, a town of hot springs, before heading to Tokyo.
Shinanoki Ichinoyu Ryokan and Onsen
We chose Shinanoki Ichinoyu for two main reasons: its affordability for the quality, and the option for a private onsen. We picked a room with an attached outdoor sulfur onsen. Our one-night stay also included dinner and breakfast, which were served in the main dining room. This stop in Hakone was exactly what we needed since both of us were pretty tired and starting to get sick from a stomach virus. We didn’t get to tour Owakudani like I had originally planned, but we can always do that on a future trip. Lounging around in our yukata and taking multiple dips in the hot spring helped prepare us for Tokyo.
Once we got to Tokyo, we were in the full swing of our tummy issues. All dreams of an eating vacation went out the window, and we spent the first couple of days resting until almost noon trying to gather the energy to walk. Thankfully, we did bring medication and were back on our feet soon enough. Since we expect to fly into Tokyo for future Japan trips, we figured it best to take it easy.
Ueno Park and Sakura Festival
Our first excursion in the city was to Ueno Park, about 30 minutes by train from our AirBnB. There was a Sakura Festival underway when we arrived, so we just walked around looking at the locals and their hanami parties, drooling over streetfood we couldn’t eat, and admiring the sakura along with the hordes of other people on the paths. I’d love to come back to this park outside of the sakura season since there’s also a zoo and plenty of areas we didn’t get to explore. I looked for any advertisements about Colors, but didn’t see anything but the panda post box and the panda statues where they sacrificed chupacabra Sat-chan.
Ameyoko was just on the other side of the park, so we stopped by for about ten minutes to check it out. We were at our limit by this point and not really interested in shopping, so took our pictures and headed back home. I do want to come back here again, though I’ll research a better time to avoid the crowds.
We had a reservation at a 2-star Michelin restaurant specializing in tempura, so despite our stomachs we knew we couldn’t cancel. By this time, KWoo was already on the mend. He was thankfully able to finish all of the courses, while I ended up having to request they stop serving me part way through. This is my biggest regret of the trip. I had been looking forward to the experience for months, and not getting to enjoy the food…well, you know how I like to eat. There were tears.
Shibuya Crossing / Hachiko Statue
By this point we were fine walking around all day, so trekked down to Shibuya to see Hachiko and Shibuya Crossing. The area was just as busy as expected, and we didn’t stay too long after watching the traffic cycle a couple of times. I’d avoid this area unless you love shopping.
Partway between Shinjuku and Harajuku is Cat Street, a pedestrian-only area with wide walkways and building after building of restaurants and stores. It honestly felt like I was in a neighborhood of Seattle or Portland. There were far less people here than in Shibuya, and the shops skewed western with names like Patagonia and Columbia. We also found a coffee shop that would fit right in with our hometown. I could’ve stayed here for more hours exploring the clothes shops, but we had a dinner appointment to catch.
As coincidence would have it, KWoo was invited to a meet-up of former high school band friends. Two of them lived in Tokyo, while another was also on vacation with his wife. One of the locals was actually born in Japan before moving to New Jersey where he grew up. Then he moved back to Japan, got married, and had a couple of kids. He took us out to his neighborhood izakaya, which felt distinctly local with its atmosphere and customers. This is where we got to try Tokyo-specialty monjayaki, a messy but delicious dish not too dissimilar from okonomiyaki. We put our coats into plastic bags to protect them from the smoke in the restaurant, then finished with drinks back at his home down the street.
Akihabara: animate, Don Quijote, Mandarake Complex
Of course we had to go to the Holy Land while in Tokyo, and barely dented the surface of what the neighborhood has to offer. We stopped into well-known shops like animate, Don Quijote, and the Mandarake Complex. We did not let ourselves get dragged off by the many maids advertising their cafes, and stopped for lunch in our first family restaurant. We’ll be back!
I really wish I could have visited Skytree when it had anime exhibits, but it was still worth it to go and experience the height and history of the landmark. When we went, they featured Takarazuka Revue, an all-female theater troupe. It was neat seeing the displays and costumes, but since we didn’t see a show ourselves, I couldn’t really connect. They also tied the theme into the Tembo Galleria and the cafe. If you go, take your time on all the levels and stop in for a bite or drink at the cafe where you can enjoy the view with less crowds.
This was the one temple in the area was visited, and I’ll be honest and say we were a bit underwhelmed after being in Kyoto. The entrance and giant lantern are still pretty impressive, but people clogged almost every corner. Like with most major temples, the street leading up to it includes many souvenir and food shops.
A bit out of our path was Odaiba, an artificial island home to several shopping centers and the life-size Gundam. Maybe someday we’ll spend more time here to really explore the shops and beaches, but for now we had a single mission in mind: to see the Unicorn Gundam. It was even more impressive in person than I had imagined. Unfortunately, we didn’t go to the seventh floor of the mall for Gundam Front.
Chidorigafuchi Park / Imperial Palace Exterior
On our last day in Tokyo, we stored our luggage at Tokyo Train station, which is very cool in its own right, and headed over to see the Imperial Palace park and the cherry blossoms in Chidorigafuchi. When we first arrived in Tokyo, the flowers were at peak bloom. By now, they were already starting to fall. We really lucked out in our itinerary this time around since it let us see blooming sakura in both the East and the West. If you visit Tokyo in the spring, you really should check out Chidorigafuchi with its tree-lined river in both daytime and night.
I’m glad we did all the research we did before traveling since it helped make everything run a little smoother. Our previous experience also taught us what to prepare in advance. It always sucks getting sick on a vacation, but as long as you bring the medicine to combat anything and rest as needed, you’ll be fine. Before I leave you to any comments or questions, here are some travel tips!
- If you are crossing back and forth from the east to the west, like from Tokyo to Kyoto, then purchasing a JR pass is worth it. The pass will cover transportation to and from the airport, your Shinkansen, and any other JR trains.
- Pick up an IC card as soon as you land, be it Suica or Pasmo (Tokyo-side), or ICOCA (Kyoto), just to name a few examples. There are tons more. These passes can be loaded up with cash at almost any train ticket machine, and can be used on not just trains, but also the subway, buses, station lockers, and even some vending machines and convenience stores. The major cards are also universally used across the country, so even though we purchased ICOCA in Kyoto, we could also use it in Tokyo.
- Bring a coin purse or pouch. Japan still relies heavily on cash, and you’ll end up with a ton of coins. You’ll likely use them up on vending machines, convenience stores, and gaming centers, but it’s nice to have a dedicated area to carry them.
- If there’s more than one of you traveling, consider renting a portable Wi-Fi over getting a SIM card. The cost is reasonable considering you can get unlimited data at a more than decent speed. This let us both use Google Maps, Google Translate, Internet browsers, and chat apps while walking around without worry.
- Bring hand sanitizer and a hand towel. While there are plenty of clean bathrooms everywhere you go, the same is not the case for actual hand soap or even sinks. Most places don’t provide towels to dry your hands, and many of them either don’t provide soap or have sinks to wash your hands at all.
- Consider learning basic Japanese. I studied for a couple of years in college, practice with my exchange sister from time and time, and also found the Duolingo app for more practice. This will help you significantly in regular interactions with people. Fortunately, Tokyo and Kyoto provide plenty of English translations on signs and announcements, so you’ll probably be fine even without knowing the language. If you want to head into the countryside, however, I recommend studying up.