Monday, November 23, 2015

Tokyo: famous sights, good food, and slightly awkward situations

Tokyo is a city that is sure to please anyone that likes big cities, good food, and has a certain curiosity for wacky things.
Goodbye, Kyoto.
Hello, Tokyo.

Laure noted how the scale of buildings in Tokyo is amazing. In most big cities, you can tell you're in the middle of the downtown area when you see a lot of sky scrapers and crowds of people rushing around you. In Tokyo, it seems like we were always in the the middle of downtown whenever we exited a subway station. With just a few days and so may options in this huge city, here's what we were able to cram in.

Conveyor belt sushi

Laure and I met up with our good friend Peter to check out some of the famous sights, eat lots and lots of incredibly good food, and experience some slightly awkward situations.
First stop was a sushi restaurant geared towards local business workers.
Sushi goes around in a conveyor belt and at the end you later pay per plate.
Each plate color corresponds to a different price.

Meiji Shrine in the Yoyogi Park

With our stomachs satisfied, we headed out to the Meiji Shrine in the Yoyogi Park.
Yoyogi Park is sort of like a Central Park of Tokyo.
A big park with full of natural beauty inside a densely packed city.
It is auspicious to take a photo of Kiyomasa's Well and include it on your phone's unlock screen or wallpaper.
This one is still on Laure's.
The entrance to the Meiji Shrine.

Takeshita street

Next, we checked out Takeshita street, which is a shopping area geared towards young teenagers. It barfs overwhelmingly colorful decorations and cuteness.
Peter picks up a snack at one of many crepe shops at Takeshita street.

Omotesandō street

We then walked down Omotesandō, which is a boulevard where major fashion stores build flagship stores designed by famous architects. We got a glimpse of Laure's nerdy architecture side.
H&M building designed by Jun Mitsui & Associates.
Prada building designed by Herzog and de Meuron.
Another cool building designed by some other famous architect.

Shibuya Crossing

At night, we crossed the Shibuya Crossing, which is generally accepted as the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Yeah, it's touristy, but so what? We're tourists.
Laure at the Shibuya Crossing.

Near the crossing you can find a statue of Hachikō, who is a rightfully legendary dog in Japan. His owner was a professor at University of Tokyo, and Hachikō waited for his return at the Shibuya train station every night after work for a year until the professor died. Hachikō continued to wait at the train station every night for his master to return from work for nearly ten years until his own death.
Hachikō the legendarily loyal dog.

Laure's friends and a local's restaurant

We then met with Laure's local architect friend, who took us to a seemingly hidden restaurant inside a nondescript building. It's the type of restaurant that we had no chance of ever finding without the help of a local. Even if we would have found it, we would have seriously struggled without an English menu or English-speaking waitstaff.
Laure's friends introduced us to some new interesting Japanese dishes and gave us a quick lesson on etiquette.
One of my favorite was this ice cold soba noodle dish with different sauces.
We also had a variety of meats in skewers that looked like popsicle sticks.
It may look like kids food, but each bite is packed with flavor.

The nice surprise of dining at such a local's restaurant is that we learned how Japanese cuisine goes far beyond the popular sushi, ramen, and udon dishes that are commonly found in the rest of the world.
See you on our next visit!

Sushi for breakfast

Next morning, we had planned to visit the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market for a sushi breakfast. To our dismay, we found that the market wasn't open that day -- what a rookie mistake to not check ahead of time. As a consolation prize, we ate at another well rated sushi restaurant nearby.
I felt slightly guilty eating so much tuna, but this was easily the most delicious Chirashi I have ever had.

Akihabara: a paradise for anime, electronics, and video game lovers

After breakfast, we headed out to Akihabara, which is famous for being the electronics (and geek) neighborhood.
I never dreamed there exists a place where buildings are draped with huge billboards of anime and video games.
If you have an anime or video game addiction problem, steer clear of Akihabara.
Super Potato is the retro video gaming mecca.
If you grew up on Nintendo games, you must visit this place.
We also spent a good amount of time in the huge multi-story Sega arcades building.
I would have lost many hours of my life if I had grown up around here.

Akihabara is also home to many of the infamous Maid Cafés. These are places where anime and manga lovers ("otakus") come to be immersed in a fantasy world. Characters dressed as French maids come around to make small talk with a tiny hint of flirting. They also draw dogs and cats on your food while convincing you to make animal sounds. Peter was so embarrassed that he had trouble making eye contact with his maid, who repeatedly called him "master".
Peter named his pancake dog after me at @Home Maid Café.
Cats in Japan say "nyan nyan" instead of "meow meow".
Peter as a lion roaring with the maid that kept calling him master.

High quality coffee

In addition to the fantasy Maid Cafés, you can also find high quality coffee shops across Tokyo. Our favorite one was Toranomon Kofee located in the modern Toranomon Hills, which is the tallest building in Tokyo when measured by the tallest point. 
Perfect cappuccino at Toranomon Koffee.

Awesome transportation system

It is no secret that the Tokyo subway system is among the best in the world. We used it as the main mode of transportation, which worked very well since Peter and I had gotten SIM cards with internet on our phones. Google Maps even displays the cost of each ride, which saved us the confusion of trying to read price tables in Japanese.
The Tokyo subway system is as amazing as everyone says.

Despite the massive crowds, things were surprisingly orderly and efficient. Our hotel was by the Shinjuku Station, which is the busiest train station in the world used by 3.64 million people per day. Even with so many passengers, everyone moves in lockstep and no one dares to stop on the way of others.

Golden Gai

At night, Peter and I walked around the Golden Gai, which is a tiny old neighborhood of small bars and restaurants. In the 1980s, many buildings were set ablaze by the Yakuza in order to resell the space to new developers. But the Golden Gai was especially protected at the time, which is why it feels like an older and cozier version of Tokyo.
The Golden Gai with narrow alleys and old buildings is a cool area to grab a drink.

Tsukiji Fish Market and the best sushi at Sushi Dai

Next morning, we once again visited the Tsukiji Fish Market, which was actually open this time. We decided to get some extra sleep and not visit the famous tuna auction, which would have required us to line up at around 4am. Instead we went for a sushi breakfast and then toured the market after the auction.

There are two very famous sushi restaurants at the fish market: Daiwa Sushi and Sushi Dai. Although Daiwa Sushi is slightly more famous, the quality is reportedly amazing at both places. So we chose Sushi Dai because its waiting line is shorter (only 60 people lining up in the rain here) and moves faster.
Laure's favorite piece at Sushi Dai: fatty tuna nigiri.
Peter and I particularly liked the uni (sea urchin).

At these excellent sushi restaurants, most customers order the omakase (chef's choice). The chef serves the best fish of the day in a particular order to maximize the flavor of each course. They offer advice on when to use wasabi or soy sauce. At the end, customers can repeat any course they liked.
Sushi Dai seats approximately ten people at a time.
Easily the best sushi I've ever had.

After breakfast, we walked around the fish market. We saw a lot of interesting fish, although I suspect the best stuff is sold out earlier in the day.
Laure at the Tsukiji Fish Market
Red octopus.

We need to go back

Tokyo is one of those cities that leaves you wanting to come back for more. One of the things I really want to check out next time is the Robot Restaurant. And of course, there are many more sushi restaurants we'd like to visit. Anyone else interested in visiting Tokyo?

Monday, November 9, 2015

Kyoto is not just a spring time destination

Kyoto is beautiful even in the middle of winter. Of course it is especially beautiful in the spring and autumn but sometimes life doesn't permit one to travel at the most ideal time of year.  We planned a trip to Kyoto at the beginning of February. Yes, Kyoto is cold during the winter, but with a down coat, gloves, long johns, and the right outlook, it can be a very special time to visit.

Our original plan was to go to Japan just for a ski vacation. But we couldn't resist the allure of the Kyoto's gardens, shrines, temples, food and culture - so the city was added onto our itinerary. Visiting during the winter allowed the opportunity to enjoy the city at a different perspective that many visitors  don't see.

With an easy train ride from Tokyo's Narita Airport to Kyoto, we were checked into our ryokan-inn and settled in before dinner. A ryokan is a traditional inn dating back to the Edo period (17th-19th century), with tatami mat floors, traditional futon beds, and offers visitors the use of cool Japanese robes called yukata. Without even leaving the room, we were immersed in Japanese culture. We could have lingered around our "hotel" and avoided the cold outside but we were excited explore Kyoto.
Waiting in an orderly line for the Shinkansen train to Kyoto.
Kyomachiya Ryokan Sakura's warm welcoming entrance.
Our room
The traditional Japanese breakfast was extremely satisfying.

With three jet-lagged days in Kyoto, here's what we did to keep busy and warm.

Enjoying the temples and gardens without the crowds

The number of international visitors is far lower in the winter and it's actually possible to enjoy many sights in the serenity for which it was originally designed. Top rated sites like Fushimi Inari Shrine had a manageable number of visitors and many other sites were nearly empty. Thanks to our jet-lag, we were able to get out early and enjoy the sites before the early sunset.
Shōren-in Temple
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
With a warm jacket and tea shops along the way one can stroll through the whole grounds, sometimes completely alone.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Shōren-in Temple was nearly empty and we were able to have a zen moment.
Kodai-ji's gardens were tranqil with the silence of winter.

Not every temple was empty. Since it doesn't snow often in Kyoto and starts to melt away in the midday sun,  a snow fall can bring out the Japanese crowds. We avoided the crowds at the Golden Pavilion but found plenty of people at Kiyomizu-dera Temple.
Kiyomizu-dera was unseasonably crowded.

Warming up with ramen, udon and soba

Japan is renowned for its amazing food. And nothing is more satisfying on a chilly day than warming up with a hot tea and a delicious bowl of soup. With every area we explored, we also had a nearby place to get a warm bowl of soup.
Sobanomi Yoshimura Restaurant specialized in homemade soba noddles. Both the set menus of warm and cold soba were excellent. They even had soba ice cream.
Udon noodles are traditionally plated separately and each chopstick full is dipped in a rich broth before eating.
Myodai Omen Kodaiji Restaurant.
World famous and now world wide Ippudo is still popular with the locals.
With a limited lunch menu and many communal tables, locals are here for the serious business of eating and getting on with their day.

Nothing screams Japan more than incorporating technology into your meal. Ginjoramenkubota arguably serves the best ramen. It's a hole-in-the-wall shop with a machine to order your food from and a small counter to eat at. You select your ramen at the machine, pay for your order and then the machine gives you a ticket. Bring your ticket to the counter where a cook will immediately start on your ramen and you'll be eating within minutes. It's fast, cheap, convenient and so delicious.
Ginjoramenkubota  has a modest store front.
Crossing our fingers that we ordered the right thing.
Oh my gosh, it was delicious.

The biggest downside of eating in Japan was the occasional smoking section. Though we were lucky enough not be seated next to a smoker, there was always a fear of what the neighboring table might pull out of their pocket.

Staying warm by moving our feet

We did a fair amount of walking between taking (toasty warm) public transportation. We spent one afternoon in Gion doing the walking tour from the Lonely Planet travel book. With small crowds and a dusting of snow on the rooftops, it was our favorite afternoon.
Sannen-zaka Street in the Higashiyama District.

Need to warm up again? Pop into a shop for a snack.

I really don't need an excuse to stop for a snack while on vacation, but warming up at the same time had us stopping more than usual.
Warmed up at Kasagi-ya Tea House; a small shop in the Gion serving a small array of local treats and tea.
Nishiki Market sells an array of Japanese food, pottery, and other knick-knacks.
Matcha snack breaks.

This won't be our last trip to Kyoto

Overall we enjoyed our time in Kyoto. Although we were a bit jet-lagged, we were able to see as much as we had hoped for. There was more to see, but honestly this did not bother us too much because we're already daydreaming of our next visit.