Our Two Week Japan Itinerary | Part 5: Hakone

After spending 5 nights in Kyoto, Chris and I made our way to Hakone for a relaxing 2 nights before venturing back to Tokyo prior to our departure. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa and it was one of the highlights of our trip. 

Day 22: Wednesday, May 24

We arrived in Hakone and the Hyatt picked us up from the train station, which was really awesome considering Hakone isn't the easiest to navigate. I cannot recommend the Hyatt enough, honestly. Free drinks in the late afternoon, amazing dining experiences inside the hotel, everyone wearing yakatas around the hotel all day every day, an incredible spa and the best service I've ever had. It was the perfect relaxation oasis we needed after all of our travels. We spent our first day in Hakone indulging in all the hotel had to offer, adorned in yakatas, refusing an itinerary that required exerting energy. We ate at the sushi restaurant that night and I've been dreaming of the marbled tuna nigiri ever since. There's really something to say for winding down in the final days of a very travel heavy trip.

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Day 23: Thursday, May 25

Since we had a pretty cloudy day, we scrapped the Mount Fuji ropeline/boat tour and opted for the Hakone Open Air museum. I have to say I'm really glad we did, because I've never been to a museum that I love more.

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Prepping with info

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After the museum, we repeated the same glorious itinerary that we did upon our arrival: free drinks, hotel restaurant (this time the French restaurant) + onsen and massage. Money worth spent for a relaxing state of mind. For all my foodie friends, the Hyatt recently launched Berce - which is limited seating and requires reservations well in advance.

The next morning, we worked our way back to Tokyo for one final night at the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi. While the hotel was lovely, I wouldn't recommend Roppongi as an area to stay as a first time visitor. It felt a little too contrived and commercialized. Shinjiku or Shibuya is where its at for the real deal cultural experience. 

That's a wrap, folks. The best trip I've had to date. Japan will forever be in my heart and mind as I continue on this life journey. While this trip was seemingly expensive, Chris and I strategized most of the costs together - meaning 80% of our hotels were free (as well as our flights). How did we do it? Email info@athingortwoblog.com for details, and I can help you achieve the same experiences we've had on any budget. Thanks for reading, and please explore my posts from Tokyo, Takayama, Kanazawa, and Kyoto!

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Our Two Week Japan Itinerary | Part 4: Kyoto

After an incedible journey through Tokyo and the Alps, Chis and I finally nestled into Kyoto - the part of our itinerary that I was very anxiously awaiting. Kyoto is a much slower pace than Tokyo, but definitely lively and modern as well. I'd read that it's comparable to Seattle, but I can't confirm that since I've never been to Seattle!

We stayed in the central downtown area of Kyoto, close to the Kamo River which was the perfect location for exploring. We were on the west side of the river and also incredibly close to the Gion area (east side of the Kamo River) which is known for it's geisha district. Kyoto's main attractions are very spread out around the city so it's good to be close to public transportation.

Kamo River

Kamo River

Day 8: Friday, May 19

Upon our arrival, we immediately checked out Nishiki Market, which was a block away from where we were staying. I had my heart set on an animal donut from Floresta (near the market), but unfortunately the shop was closed when we were there *sigh.*

Floresta: Photo cred from tourdelust.com

Floresta: Photo cred from tourdelust.com

After exploring for a bit we head over to Gyogo Ramen, which is really close to the market. Unfortunately it was closed when we stopped by (around 2pm) so we waited until it reopened and opted for an early dinner. The restaurant is really beautifully designed - clean typography, dark wood surfaces, and a beautiful garden that you can view from the main dining room. We both ordered the burnt miso ramen, which is what they are famous for, and it's quite obvious as to why! The ramen is so flavorful and so were the other apps and drinks we ordered. I also ordered Mio, sparkling sake, to really kick it up a notch. After, we randomly stopped in Forum Kyoto on our late night stroll, which was a really awesome space to chill out and get caffeinated at the specialty coffee house. 

Day 9: Saturday, May 20

We woke up really early as temps were high and we wanted to do as much as possible before the sun hit it's peak. We took an early bus to Arashiyama (about a half hour from where we were staying), which is on the far west side of Kyoto. Our first stop was Bamboo forest. I'd heard from many travelers on our journey that it was underwhelming, but to me it was magical. Maybe it was because we basically had the forest to ourselves at such an early hour and the sunlight was pouring in through the trees - but I was in awe. I will admit that it's a brief excursion, but worth it in my opinion. And when in Arashiyama, it's something you must do.

Bamboo Grove early in the morning

Bamboo Grove early in the morning

Bamboo Grove from the outside

Bamboo Grove from the outside

After Bamboo forest, we were due for a morning coffee and snack. We stopped at 100% Arabica and I have to say I love their branding almost as much as their coffee. We ordered two cappuccinos and a croissant, and sat outside enjoying the river views and early morning calmness. The interior is simple with bright white and wood accents, and we noticed that every customer was obsessively snapping insta pics.

We strolled a bit and after admiring the boats on the water, decided it was necessary to go for a ride. The 30 minute cruise ended up being one of my favorite memories from our trip – we were able to relax and soak in all of the beautiful views, breathing in the fresh morning air. After, we attempted to go to Shorain for lunch, but for reasons unknown to us the restaurant was closed (Argh, strike 3 in Kyoto!)  so we stopped in for a quick bite at Yojiya cafe.

Also on our list was Monkey Park. I'd pictured myself in the midst of monkeys for weeks leading up to our trip, laughing and holding them with a big fat smile stretched from ear to ear. Monkey Park isn't as simple to get to as I thought it might be - it requires a decent hike through a dense forest until you reach the top of the park. You're then greeted with a clan of monkeys - but there are rules. Don't look at them directly in the eyes. Don't squat down to take photos of them. Don't touch them. Chris and I navigated around them carefully, snapping pics when and where we could. 

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As the day progressed, the temps got higher and higher. Kyoto was definitely the hottest part of our trip, with temps reaching 90 degrees. Which only meant one thing to keep us cool – matcha green tea ice cream before heading to Tenryu-ji Temple for our final stop in Arashiyama. Matcha green tea flavored everything is everywhere in Japan, and this was definitely not our first taste of it.

Tenryu-ji Temple had really beautiful garden grounds and an impressive facade. With the crowds multiplying and feeling exhausted from all of our excursions, we opted to quickly tour the inside and peer out into the garden. We sat inside the temple for a long time and relaxed before heading back.

I spy two kimonos

I spy two kimonos

Gardens at Tenryu-ji temple

Gardens at Tenryu-ji temple

We took a bus home and chilled out at our place before heading to dinner at Giro Giro Hitoshina – one of my favorite dinners of the entire trip. Surprisingly inexpensive, Giro Giro serves kaiseki - around 8 courses all for approximately $50/per person. Each dish was thoughtfully plated with florals, interesting colorful ingredients and flavors –  and the place setting was just so adorable! Highly recommend for at least one of your dining experiences in Kyoto. It overlooks the Takase-gawa canal, so I would imagine lunch would also be a great choice for this restaurant. Chris and I still talk about how much we loved this meal, but for the life of us we can't tell you exactly what we ate.

Day 10: Sunday, May 21

We woke early and made our way to the very famous Fushimi Inari Shrine that's south of the train station and the downtown area. I was familiar with this shrine but hadn't really extensively researched it, and it ended up being hours of amazing hiking, souvenir shopping and exploring. The shrine is massive and you are given the choice to hike all the way up (which you should do!). We made it about 3/4 of the way and headed back down, knowing we had a train to catch to Nara. I do regret not hiking the entire shrine, but I also kind of don't (my hangover from sake at Giro Giro was real, guys).

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We made our way back to the train to head to Nara (about a 45 min ride), which is very close to Fushimi Inari Shrine, so it's a great idea to do both in one day. When we arrived, we walked towards Nara park where free roaming deer bow to you in order to get snacks. They are considered to be messengers of the gods, a treasure of Nara, and they're the cutest things ever. Some of them, however, can be pretty aggressive if you have snacks in your hands, so be prepared to feed them! There are multiple vendors at the park that sell the snacks for around 2 yen. 

There are multiple temples around Nara, and I highly recommend going to the Tōdai-ji temple that has an enormous Buddha statue. Unfortunately, and my only regret other than not hiking the entire Fushimi-Inari shrine, was not making it to Tōdai-ji. Again, I blame the sake from the night before ...oops. On our way out, however, we were graced by the presence of Starduck Tony, one of the craziest and most entertaining street performers I've ever seen. When we arrived home, we ate at a nearby yakatori place that reminded us of the Japanese version of Buffalo Wild Wings. I don't remember the name of the place we ate, but it was very casual and very delicious.

Starduck Tony in Nara

Day 11: Monday, May 22

We decided to have a lazy morning – slept in and relaxed a bit before heading into Gion. We did a lot of souvenir shopping in Shinkyogoku near where we were staying, as well as in Gion. There was one particular antique store that had so many unique finds - great spot to buy sake cups and authentic antiques (still trying to remember the name!). Around 3pm we had a reservation at En, a small Japanese tea house, to witness tea ceremony. I wanted to go because I practiced tea ceremonies in college, and I remembered it to be a very special experience. After, we headed deeper into Gion and explored Ninen-zaka and San'nen-zaka streets, which are lined with souvenir shops and women dressed in colorful kimonos everywhere you look. Ninen-zaka means "slope of two years" and San'nen-zaka means "slope of three years". Apparently, you're supposed to die in two years if you fall down on Ninen-zaka and within three years if you fall down on San'nen-zaka. The big risk takers that we are, we strutted through the streets - no problem. I will admit that I was a bit panicky the entire time, walking at an extra slow pace. The streets lead toward Kiyomizu-dera temple, one of the greatest temples in Kyoto that overlooks the city. We were running low on time, though - and skipped it before our dinner at Hafuu Honten. Wagyu beef was calling, and momma was hungry.

street of gion, Ninen-zaka

street of gion, Ninen-zaka

Day 21: Tuesday, May 23

Originally, we'd planned to do a day trip to Osaka, but we were feeling a bit traveled out and stayed in Kyoto instead. We made our way to Kinkaku-ji Shrine (the golden temple) and admired it from every angle in all of its glory.

Ticket to get into Kinkaku-ji

Ticket to get into Kinkaku-ji

Without a checklist and now feeling a little bit more at home in Kyoto, we made our way back and popped into a few stores along the way. I definitely found one of my favorite souvenirs at a convenience store - face masks in the form of otters, tigers, opera masks, pigs, and more. Yes, you look like a tiger (or whichever one you choose) when you apply the mask. They're also really great masks, my skin felt amazing afterwards!

Without any dinner plans, I was craving those Japanese pancakes again...so I did a little Tripadvisor research and found a place that seemed pretty good in Gion. Unfortunately, when we arrived, it was closed due to reconstruction (Strike 4!). I was starting to get hangry so we ducked into a casual place along the Kamo river that happened to be open. Nothing is open between 2-5, so we got lucky.

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As we were eating, Chris had the brilliant idea to ask the owner where to get some good okonomiyaki. Luck was on our side because he knew of a place next door that was hidden away and completely authentic aka you can't find it anywhere on Tripadvisor. We were greeted by the cutest old lady who took us into a back room where she made delicious pancakes right in front of us. It was truly one of my favorite experiences because it felt so natural and true to Kyoto. There wasn't even a sign outside, just a hidden away pancake spot and the sweetest little woman ever.

Okonomiyaki

After we ate, we decided it was time to hunt for geishas. They are known to come out at dusk, but are rarely ever seen in person. We walked along leisurely, and after a good amount of time and no sightings, we decided to give up. We then strolled along the Kamo river, and out of nowhere at 8:22pm Chris said, "Katie, I see one. Wait, I see a whole group of geishas!" Being the overly observant husband that he is, Chris was peering up onto the balconies that overlook the river. It was there that we found gold. Geisha after geisha on balconies! We stopped in awe and admired them from below. I actually got goosebumps watching them in a real setting, it was really something special and a great way to end our stay in Kyoto. 

Overall we absolutely loved the city and would go back in a heart beat. It's filled with beauty that's impossible to fully capture in this post.

Have you ever been to Kyoto? Let us know what we missed for next time!


General Japan Tips: 

• Always carry yen. Chris constantly had a pocket full of yen because we'd always encounter a souvenir shop, vending machine or anything else that only accepted yen. If you take a bus, they ask for exact change (even though it isn't necessary) so it's nice to have it on hand.

• Taxi doors close themselves. Do not try to close a taxi door, they are automatic and the driver will be confused if you close them yourself.

• Do not tip!  You will only confuse your driver, waiter or whoever else that you believe is tip worthy and you might find someone chasing after you to give you your money back.

•  Drinking and eating on the go is not a part of the culture. In Japan, you won't see anyone walking around with a Starbucks coffee and a donut. Everyone takes the time to sit down and consume their meal or drink.

•  Chopsticks. Never leave your chopsticks sticking straight up in your rice bowl. We avoided chopsticks sticking straight up in general, in any meal.

• Public transportation > taxi. The trains in Tokyo are your best mode of transportation. They are faster than taxis and cost effective. When choosing a hotel, I'd recommend staying in one near a train station. That way, you can zip around easily. If you will be traveling around Japan and not staying in one location, consider getting a Japan Rail Pass.

• Give and receive with two hands. In Japan, everyone hands things to you with two hands. You should accept what they hand you with two hands, and offer with two hands.

• Choose your shoes wisely. My trusty Fit Bit informed me that I was walking around 20k steps a day, which is around 10 miles. I brought a pair of New Balance and Adidas sneakers, as well as Cole Haan loafers for dressier occasions. In my opinion, heels are a huge waste of luggage space.

• Don't do too much in one day. When you're in Tokyo, you want to do it all. I get it. You've traveled far and you've got a solid itinerary to get through. Spoiler alert: Tokyo is huge and everyone who's ever been there undoubtedly has a list of things they didn't get to do. I urge you to not do too much in one day. It's draining and instead of focusing on a few things, you're just running to get to the next without appreciating the moment. We ran into so many travelers who were just exhausted and you could tell they were in checklist mode. Plan enough so that you have the things you really want to do, but leave room for flexibility and down time so that you are experiencing local life instead of tourist life.

• Get up early for touristy attractions. Crowds are real and if it's hot, the heat is not something you're going to want to face at midday. Early mornings  = fewer crowds, pleasant weather, better photo opps, and more time in the day for other things. 

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Our 2 Week Japan Itinerary | Part 3: Kanazawa

Hello everyone! Thank you for following our journey through our two week Japan itinerary. Chris and I started our adventure in Tokyo (which you can read about here), then journeyed to Takayama and Shirakawa-go, then north to Kanazawa, followed by Kyoto, Hakone and back to Tokyo. In this post, I will cover our time in Kanazawa.

I'd read that Kanazawa was a very crafty and artistic city with the beautiful Kenrokuen gardens - so of course I was interested. Chris had suggested eliminating it from our itinerary in the beginning, but I stuck to my guns! I was also interested in Kanazawa from a historical standpoint, as it was the second largest city in Japan to escape destruction by air raids during World War II. We had a short amount of time here, but we spent it well!

Day 6: Wednesday, May 17

We arrived in Kanazawa late afternoon after traversing through Shirakawa-go. It was a really easy bus ride, just one hour away. Upon our arrival, we settled in to our hotel in the middle of the downtown area and relaxed. We decided it was time to have an American meal, and after perusing Tripadvisor, Oriental Pizza Brewery had our taste buds dancing in anticipation of bread, cheese, and fried food. Yep, we were not above pizza. It was happening. We sat at the bar and watched the server greet, make, and serve every dish. He was truly a one man show and we watched in admiration of his efficiencies. We were also happy to just sit back, have a beer and laugh. It was a really nice pause moment that helped us recollect our energy and reflect on the trip.

After dinner, Chris recommended going to a bar he'd read about online where the owner had been to over 70 countries. It was close to our hotel, so we popped in for a beer and it ended up being one of my favorite nights. Working with a small space, we cozied up to the bar and began asking the owner a ton of questions in awe of his journeys. He spoke English and we connected right away. Sitting next to us was a young Japanese girl named Ayano who had books spread out in front of her. She was working on learning English, so Chris and I decided to help her out. She expressed gratitude for our kindness and taught us a few fun things about the Japanese culture. For example, we were introduced to Anpanman and the Snow app, which is very similar to Snapchat. Here's one of our glorious Snow debuts. 

We walked back to our hotel through the Higashi Chaya District, which had an old world feeling filled with teahouses and tiny bars, and then quickly collapsed into bed.

Day 7: Thursday, May 18

Rise and Shine! Time to hit up Kanazawa in one day. We awoke early and got the breakfast buffet at our hotel (Chris is obsessed with breakfast buffets) and then headed towards the Kanazawa Castle and Kenrokuen gardens. In order to avoid crowds, we tried to get there early but we got lost (this is what happens when I navigate) and arrived a little past our ideal time frame. Ah well! It was a beautiful day, perfect for gardens and castles. (If only I could say that every day). We arrived at Kanazawa Castle through a large, open park and lounged for a bit admiring the landscape and bright blue sky.

Japan garden child

Japan garden child

Not posing but actually posing

Not posing but actually posing

As we followed the path toward the castle, we began to take in the beauty that is the Kanazawa castle. The architecture and detail is truly mind-blowing.

Detailed castle doors

Detailed castle doors

After our stroll through the castle grounds, the path naturally leads to the gardens. While the gardens were absolutely gorgeous, we were battling tourist crowds on steroids. After our late departure and time spent at the castle, the garden grounds were not the quiet, meditative experience we were hoping for. Regardless, they were a site to see and worth weaving in and out of human clusters. 

Picture perfect Kenrokuen

Picture perfect Kenrokuen

Japenese Gardener 

Japenese Gardener 

After departing the gardens we decided to visit the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art and get lunch. The museum was beautiful and bright white with pops of color. The first open exhibit was a large pool - I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

I'm inside a pool, yo! And my outfit blends in perfectly.

I'm inside a pool, yo! And my outfit blends in perfectly.

At the time of our visit, the featured artist was Ikeda Manibu, a master of pen and ink, whose art truly blew us away. We had the privilege of perusing the galleries dedicated to his work, and sitting in on a documentary interview that was playing in the museum. This mastermind creates everything with a pen. A PEN. My god the talent! *Jealous*

After the museum, we went back to our hotel to regain some energy and then paid a quick visit to the Samarai House which I'd read mixed reviews on but ended up loving. The outdoor space looks out upon a beautiful garden and flowing water – the perfect place for reflection and meditation. 

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That night, we ended up grabbing a quick Sushi dinner at Sushi Ippei which I had mixed feeings about. Chris really liked it, but I wasn't the biggest fan. I do think it had a lot to do with my neglect to order what I know I like, and instead took the mystery route. I tried to get reservations at Otomezushi a month in advance, which is supposed to blow all other sushi restaurants away, but no dice – so we ended up winging it. We also thought about Fuwari, but chose a simpler dinner instead because we were exhausted and not in the mood for a big production. However, I'd read great things so I do reco based on my research.

And that's a wrap for Kanazawa! One of the things we thought about doing but didn't get to was the Omi-cho market (we were marketed out so we chose to skip it), but otherwise we felt pretty good about how we chose to spend our time.

In my next post I'll cover our time in Kyoto (I'm so excited to share as I absolutely LOVED Kyoto). Feel free to check out our Tokyo and Takayama itineraries as well! Thanks for reading!


Kanazawa Tips: 

• Get up early for the gardens. Getting up early for touristy attractions is generally a good idea, but we really wished we'd been able to navigate Kenrokuen gardens without the distraction of fanny packs and selfie sticks. 

• Purchase a souvenir. Kanazawa is full of craft stores, it's a great place to pick up an authentic Japanese handicraft. We also haphazardly ran into an adorable furniture store where Chris bonded with the owner over wood working techniques and design ideas.


General Japan Tips: 

• Always carry yen. Chris constantly had a pocket full of yen because we'd always encounter a souvenir shop, vending machine or anything else that only accepted yen. If you take a bus, they ask for exact change (even though it isn't necessary) so it's nice to have it on hand.

• Taxi doors close themselves. Do not try to close a taxi door, they are automatic and the driver will be confused if you close them yourself.

• Do not tip!  You will only confuse your driver, waiter or whoever else that you believe is tip worthy and you might find someone chasing after you to give you your money back.

•  Drinking and eating on the go is not a part of the culture. In Japan, you won't see anyone walking around with a Starbucks coffee and a donut. Everyone takes the time to sit down and consume their meal or drink.

•  Chopsticks. Never leave your chopsticks sticking straight up in your rice bowl. We avoided chopsticks sticking straight up in general, in any meal.

• Public transportation > taxi. The trains in Tokyo are your best mode of transportation. They are faster than taxis and cost effective. When choosing a hotel, I'd recommend staying in one near a train station. That way, you can zip around easily. If you will be traveling around Japan and not staying in one location, consider getting a Japan Rail Pass.

• Give and receive with two hands. In Japan, everyone hands things to you with two hands. You should accept what they hand you with two hands, and offer with two hands.

• Choose your shoes wisely. My trusty Fit Bit informed me that I was walking around 20k steps a day, which is around 10 miles. I brought a pair of New Balance and Adidas sneakers, as well as Cole Haan loafers for dressier occasions. In my opinion, heels are a huge waste of luggage space.

• Don't do too much in one day. When you're in Tokyo, you want to do it all. I get it. You've traveled far and you've got a solid itinerary to get through. Spoiler alert: Tokyo is huge and everyone who's ever been there undoubtedly has a list of things they didn't get to do. I urge you to not do too much in one day. It's draining and instead of focusing on a few things, you're just running to get to the next without appreciating the moment. We ran into so many travelers who were just exhausted and you could tell they were in checklist mode. Plan enough so that you have the things you really want to do, but leave room for flexibility and down time so that you are experiencing local life instead of tourist life.

• Get up early for touristy attractions. Crowds are real and if it's hot, the heat is not something you're going to want to face at midday. Early mornings  = fewer crowds, pleasant weather, better photo opps, and more time in the day for other things. 

 

Our 2 Week Japan Itinerary | Part 2: Takayama & Shirakawa-go

Chris and I arrived in Takayama after a very long train ride from Tokyo (you can read my Tokyo post here!) Admittedly, we missed a connecting train because we read the train schedule incorrectly which bumped our travel time up from 4.5 hours to 6 hours. Soooo yeah...avoid doing that. We planned on taking a Shinkansen without realizing that it was fully reserved! It was a simple oversight that cost us a couple of hours, which brings me to my first tip: Before taking a Shinkansen, make sure there are non-reserved seats available. Most of them have non-reserved seats, so for the most part it shouldn't be an issue, but just wanted to mention it! Takayama is up in the alps and quite the opposite from Tokyo. We were only there for 2 days, and we both felt our minds and bodies starting to relax after the eccentric madness of Tokyo. Takayama is quiet, authentic, set in the mountains and really tells the story of old world Japan. There are no Starbucks or H&Ms here. It's true to it's origin and it's quite obvious the moment you arrive. Here is how we spent our time.

Day 5: Tuesday, May 16

We arrived late afternoon following a lengthy travel time and immediately settled into our Ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese Inn and something you MUST do during your time in Japan. It's honestly the best way to really immerse yourself into the culture. When you arrive at your Ryokan, you have to take your shoes off at the door, and wear the slippers they provide for you. Ryokans have tatami-matted rooms, onsens (hot spring baths), and you have the option to be served a traditional Japanese dinner (Kaiseki) in your room which is a very special experience. Not all Ryokan's are exactly the same, (some may not have an onsen at all while others have an outdoor onsen) but it's the general idea of how what to expect. We stayed at Ryokan Tanabe, a mid-range accommodation, which is located right smack dab in the middle of Takayama, the perfect place for home base with limited time. Our dinner was at 6pm, so we walked around prior to that to get a feel for the town. We passed through San-machi, the old streets, and made an effort to see the Yoshijima Heritage House, but it was closed.

Wisteria draped over doors = swoon

Wisteria draped over doors = swoon

San-Machi Street

San-Machi Street

Once we got back, we changed into our yukatas to wear around the Ryokan right before dinner – one for Chris and one for me! As first timers, we learned how to wear them the correct way from the Japanese woman who runs the Inn. She also prepared our dinner in our room, which was incredible. The spread was ridiculous - so much food prepared in ways I've never seen before, with touches of flowers and other textures that really made the meal an artistic masterpiece.

What did I eat? I can tell you confidently that I'm not 100% sure.

What did I eat? I can tell you confidently that I'm not 100% sure.

Crushing it in my Yukata

Crushing it in my Yukata

After dinner, we relaxed in the onsen. If you've never experienced an onsen before, let me lay it out for you. First, an onsen is essentially a nude public or private bath, and incredibly relaxing. If you're lucky enough to have a room with a private open-air bath - well, I'm jealous. But you also don't experience bathing nude publicly with strangers which is super awesome (don't worry, there are male onsens and female onsens). You're given your Yukata and a little bag (filled with a toothbrush, small towel, etc) and you wear it into the onsen. When you're inside, you strip down to nothing - carrying in only the small towel from your bag that you'll eventually place on your head while bathing. Before you get into the onsen, you will sit down Japanese style and wash yourself clean in a bath. Then, you walk into the onsen and relax, placing the towel on your head. For me, the water was often too hot so I'd spend about 10 minutes max and then shower off and get back in my Yukata. I was also often alone or with one other person, so it was never that scary. It's really awkward at first, but before I knew it I was stripping down with ease and strutting nude into onsen like a pro. You will love it, I promise.

That night, we decided to get a drink at Red Hill Bar. We also realized that not a lot was open on Tuesdays in Takayama. We arrived around 4:30pm and EVERYTHING was closed - so we were surprised that Red Hill was even open. A quirky little bar, we exchanged travel stories with a lovely couple sitting next to us and drew pictures in a coloring book for the owner. It was nice to just sit back and have some sake.

Day 6: Wednesday, May 17

We woke early, still partially jet-lagged (yep, it takes a minute!) and wandered through the Miyagawa morning market. A very quaint and charming market, we purchased a few small souvenirs and ultimately had breakfast at a little coffee joint at the very end of the market road. Sarubobo dolls are everywhere because they are considered to be good luck even though they look a tad like small demons. Naturally, I swooped one up for my keychain. The market is awesome because it's right on the river, so you can stroll along leisurely and not worry about a damn thing. Later in the day, we strolled through San-machi again as we didn't have a lot of time when we arrived. It's an incredibly charming street filled with storefronts and doorways styled in ways that almost made me cry. Seriously, precious.

Since this was our only full day in Takayama, we wanted to explore as much as we could. I'd heard about the Hida Beef, a must try and a town favorite. So we made sure to pick up a dough ball from a street vendor filled with delicious beef on our journey. And yes, it was deeeelish.

Hey beef ball...get in my belly

Hey beef ball...get in my belly

Since we were in the alps, Chris and I were really feeling outdoorsy and we were due for a hike. Since we didn't research Takayama that much before arriving, Chris instinctively found a path that lead through the castle ruins and up to the top of a hill. It was really calming to do some forest bathing and declutter our minds. When we reached the top, we were able to look out onto the town with the mountains in the distance. We actually never found the castle ruins, but that wasn't our goal (I don't think they exist). For us it was just a peaceful stroll to get away for a bit.

View from our hike

View from our hike

On our way down, we did some souvenir shopping and popped into a few stores. We passed The Paper Cut gallery by chance and fell in love with the artist's work. Truly intricate and thoughtful. We ended our day with a good nights sleep and mentally prepped for our stop to Shirakawa-go in the morning before heading to Kanazawa.

From the moment we started planning our trip, I was dying to make a stop at Shirakawa-go. This historical village looked so charming in photos, and I wanted to experience the real deal. As a stop from Takayama to Kanazawa, it made perfect sense on our path – and you only need a few hours. Unfortunately, we didn't book our bus tickets in advance (so yeah...book bus tickets in advance!) and a lot of the bus times were sold out. However, we got lucky and were able to stop in for 2 hours. Even though it wasn't a lot of time, it was totally worth it.

The village does have a good number of tourists walking around, for good reason. While we were there, we immediately felt rushed due to our lack of time and we knew we couldn't miss the bus to Kanazawa so we kicked it into high gear and did everything we wanted to. For us, it was mostly gazing in awe at the traditional gassho-zukuri farm houses. Gassho-zukuri means "constructed like hands in prayer" after the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. We traversed around and took a ton of photos of the houses and overall scenery, then did a mild hike up the the Shiroyama Observatory Deck to take in the breathtaking view of all of the houses. 

There are a few other things I would recommend doing that we didn't get to, like visiting the Wada house (over 300 years old!) to get an inside look at the thatched-roof gassho-style houses. After our visit, we continued to Kanazawa via bus, about a one hour trek from Shirakawa-go. 

Chris and I really loved our time in Takayama and Shirakawa-go. It felt so untouched and relaxing, and very much needed after a wild spin through Tokyo. After our trip, we did go back and reconsider our route and if we should have gone to Kanazawa before Takayama - but either way, Takayama is just a little bit further out of the way if you are working with time constraints.

If you'd like to see where our journey started, take a look at my Tokyo post! And as always, please see below for Takayama/Shirakawa-go tips as well as general Japan tips! Thanks for reading and have a great 4th of July weekend!

 


Takayama/Shirakawa-goTips: 

Most places are closed in Takayama on Tuesdays. It was ghost town when we arrived around 4pm on a Tuesday. After doing some cursory research, it appears that Tuesday is not a great day for perusing Takayama! Luckily we were only there for that night and had dinner at the Ryokan, plus Red Hill bar was open!

Plan your bus times early if you plan on going to Shirakawa-go. Chris and I were in a bit of a bind when we found out there was only one bus time available to get to Shirakawa-go from Takayama, and one time from Shirakawa-go to Kanazawa which left us with only two hours. Inquire before you get there or book it immediately when you arrive!


Japan Tips: 

Always carry yen. Chris constantly had a pocket full of yen because we'd always encounter a souvenir shop, vending machine or anything else that only accepted yen. If you take a bus, they ask for exact change (even though it isn't necessary) so it's nice to have it on hand.

Taxi doors close themselves. Do not try to close a taxi door, they are automatic and the driver will be confused if you close them yourself.

Do not tip!  You will only confuse your driver, waiter or whoever else that you believe is tip worthy and you might find someone chasing after you to give you your money back.

 Drinking and eating on the go is not a part of the culture. In Japan, you won't see anyone walking around with a Starbucks coffee and a donut. Everyone takes the time to sit down and consume their meal or drink.

 Chopsticks. Never leave your chopsticks sticking straight up in your rice bowl. We avoided chopsticks sticking straight up in general, in any meal.

Public transportation > taxi. The trains in Tokyo are your best mode of transportation. They are faster than taxis and cost effective. When choosing a hotel, I'd recommend staying in one near a train station. That way, you can zip around easily. If you will be traveling around Japan and not staying in one location, consider getting a Japan Rail Pass.

Give and receive with two hands. In Japan, everyone hands things to you with two hands. You should accept what they hand you with two hands, and offer with two hands.

Choose your shoes wisely. My trusty Fit Bit informed me that I was walking around 20k steps a day, which is around 10 miles. I brought a pair of New Balance and Adidas sneakers, as well as Cole Haan loafers for dressier occasions. In my opinion, heels are a huge waste of luggage space.

• Don't do too much in one day. When you're in Tokyo, you want to do it all. I get it. You've traveled far and you've got a solid itinerary to get through. Spoiler alert: Tokyo is huge and everyone who's ever been there undoubtedly has a list of things they didn't get to do. I urge you to not do too much in one day. It's draining and instead of focusing on a few things, you're just running to get to the next without appreciating the moment. We ran into so many travelers who were just exhausted and you could tell they were in checklist mode. Plan enough so that you have the things you really want to do, but leave room for flexibility and down time so that you are experiencing local life instead of tourist life.

Get up early for touristy attractions. Crowds are real and if it's hot, the heat is not something you're going to want to face at midday. Early mornings  = fewer crowds, pleasant weather, better photo opps, and more time in the day for other things. 

 

Our 2 Week Japan Itinerary | Part 1: Tokyo

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Chris and I spent our honeymoon in Europe and we absolutely loved it because obviously – Europe is easy to love. But it also left us wanting to experience a completely different culture. After talking with well traveled friends and doing some research, we decided Japan would be the perfect place to spend two weeks. Although we missed the cherry blossoms, we both agreed that we couldn't have gone at a better time. Right after the madness of golden week, and right before the rainy and humid summer months turned out to be perfect weather with manageable crowds. We began our adventure in Tokyo for 4 nights, then the alps (Takayama, Shirakawa-go and Kanazawa), Kyoto for 5 nights (with a day trip to Nara), Hakone for 2 nights, and ending in Tokyo for one final night. I will be writing separate posts for each destination so I can get as detailed as possible without my posts being wayyy too long. 

To start, Tokyo is like nothing I have ever experienced in my life. There's an energy and vibrance that immediately snaps you into this invigorating place and makes you wide-eyed and eager to do everything. As first timers, we decided to dive right in and stayed in Shibuya at the Cerulean Hotel which worked out perfectly. We were close to public transportation and right in the middle of everything yet removed a bit which was nice. Shibuya is known to cater to a younger crowd and encapsulate a lot of the energy that is true to Tokyo.  If I were to go back, I would stay in Shinjuku, another area that we really loved. The main areas that visitors consider staying in are Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza and Roppongi. More on that later.

Here is what we did in Tokyo.

Day 1: Friday, May 12, 2017

We arrived at Narita airport around 5pm and immediately got coffee (hellloooo jet lag like I've never experienced) and our pocket wifi. Guys, pocket wifi is life changing. We paid $83 for 2 weeks of unlimited data/great connection for both of us. It worked like a charm, you just have to make sure its charged and ready for the day. We didn't have any issue with connectivity and it made our trip so much smoother than using AT&T passport in Europe. Looking back I can't believe we managed without one. I highly recommend getting this along with a Japan Rail Pass (if it makes sense for your itinerary), which can be mailed to the airport or your hotel. When we finally arrived in Shibuya, we were so close to Shibuya crossing that we decided to walk through it and meander about to get a feel for Tokyo. Given it being a Friday night, the streets were very much alive and we got to witness a true Tokyo Friday night in action - which was a very surreal moment. Given our jet lagged incompetencies, we stumbled about and then decided to grab a quick dinner to go at Tokyu Food Show, which is right beneath the station. I highly recommend it for a quick snack or taste of Tokyo. As first timers, we quickly grabbed the first things that felt familiar and ate them sadly in our hotel room before passing out around 6pm. Not my favorite experience, but definitely an eye opening one that was a good sampling variety of our future meal options.

Day 2: Saturday, May 13, 2017

"Up and at em!" At least that's what my Fitbit read when we woke up around 5am. (5am = me just standing vertically, as I'd been up since midnight lying wide-eyed and frustrated. Jet lag is REAL in Japan.). Before arriving, I did a ton of research and made a solid itinerary of the things we wanted to do and see each day. I tried to keep it loose yet structured, allowing for flexibility yet having something to do every day so there was never time wasted doing a lot of research while traveling. In Europe, I think we winged it a little too much - and so I wanted to make sure we had just the right amount of planning in place prior to arriving. 

First on the list was to go to Tsujiki Fish Market - and what better day to do it than the first day we arrived, up early and ready to go. There's an option to go super early, I'm talkin' 4:30AM in the hopes of seeing a live auction. We weren't interested enough (and after talking to other travelers, happy we made the decision not to) and arrived around 7:30am, early enough to traverse around the outer market. At the market, there's an outer market and an inner market. The inner market used to open at 9am, but it now opens at 10am – so you can imagine the dilemma of arriving at 4AM to see the auction and then waiting around to go to the inner market. Decisions, decisions.

This market was one of the highlights of our trip and really forced us to experiment. It's filled with some of the oddest and most delicious food you can imagine. Chris was a bit more daring than I was, as I mostly waited it out for breakfast Sushi.

tsujikimarket
Baby aliens about to hatch? IDK.

Baby aliens about to hatch? IDK.

Another amazing thing about the market is the stores that sell authentic Japanese knives. You can watch the knives being made right in front of you and they can even ship them home. (We definitely asked, but didn't end up following through).

After exploring the outer market, we walked over to Sushi Dai in hopes of scoring fresh sushi for breakfast. Sushi Dai, along with Daiwa Sushi, are both very well known for their sushi and they are just outside of the inner market. For a mere 3 hour wait, we could've had premium sushi rolling around in our bellies. Had we been there earlier for the auction, my guess is that the wait would have been shorter. Either way, we ducked into a smaller sushi place nearby instead where we quickly learned our favorite types of sushi.

While the outer market is worthy of a good amount of your time, the inner market is the real deal. This is where everything goes down, and its partially gruesome yet mostly amazing. You are not allowed to take photos, yet I saw multiple people snapping away and for good reason. The processes and types of fish are unreal. After a lengthy stroll, we headed back to Shibuya to rest up and get lunch at the early hour of 11am!

Inner market before opening

Inner market before opening


Tsujiki Market Tips: 

Bring yen, and lots of it! You'll need it to purchase any and all goods outside of the market.
• Wear closed toe shoes
• Decide ahead of time if the auction is worth seeing, because it will determine how you navigate Tsujiki. Fellow travelers told me it lasted 3 minutes total, so keep in mind your goals for the day. Is it going to the auction and getting into a great sushi place early? Or is it perusing the outer market and then the inner market at 10am? Keep timeframes in mind! You don't want to be face planted in sushi at 11 am because you're exhausted from waking up at 3am, got it?
• Make sure to check if the market is open! It's usually closed on Sundays and Wednesdays.
• The inner market opens at 10am and not a minute before. They are strict with this rule and you may be shuffled around until it's 10am on the dot.


After heading back home, we grabbed lunch at Ichiran Ramen near our hotel. We'd heard great things so we stood in the pouring rain for around a half hour, starving from our less than substantial sushi breakfast.

This ramen better be f'ing good!

This ramen better be f'ing good!

The ramen was incredible and it was a very different experience. The staff spoke very little English so it was up to us to figure out how to order and communicate with the servers. In this particular Ramen place, you order from a machine and then the host escorts you to a small booth (that you can share with another person if  you'd like) where you are given the privacy to slurp ramen up in all its glory with all the slurping you've ever dreamed of. Highly recommend! Also, quick side note: it was at this point I noticed the sewer designs in Japan are all different and all on point.

That night, we headed to Robot Restaurant for what was sure to be an unforgettable touristy and over the top experience. I booked our tickets ahead of time on Voyagin because of the discounted rate, and it worked out perfectly. There's an option to order a bento box, but we chose the ticket with a free drink only as I'd read that the food was not that great. Robot restaurant is hilarious and fun and touristy and completely crazy and I loved all of it. Before we left, I had a few people tell me it's a waste of time but I suppose it just depends on what you're seeking. For us, it was a great way to loosen up and have some fun. Since it's touristy, it's also a great way to make friends! I somehow encountered a friend of a friend from New Zealand, and we met a couple from England that we ended up hanging out with for the rest of the night. I'd call it a win and something I definitely do not regret. Plus who doesn't love glowing dragons, oversized one-eyed dolls and robots with clown wigs?

Shinjuku nights

Shinjuku nights

After the show, we explored Shinjuku nightlife and ended up at Golden Gai, which is a small area of tiny bars that only have about 5-6 people inside (sometimes more, but usually a very small number). It was such an intimate, authentic experience and my first okonomiyaki in Japan (gotta get those pancakes!). When I went upstairs to use the bathroom, there was a tea ceremony going on!

Day 3: Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sunday morning started early with a visit to Meiji Shrine just north of our hotel. We were definitely feeling the contrast coming from Robot Restaurant the night before, as Meiji Shrine was beautiful and serene. 

Torii

Torii

Before you reach the shrine, you walk through the Torii (pictured above) and take an incredibly peaceful stroll through the forested areas. If you go early enough (which I highly recommend) it's calm and a great time for reflection and meditation. Once you reach the shrine's innermost grounds, you'll approach the Temizuya, and if you're lucky to catch a tour group like I did, you'll learn the correct way to rinse your hands and mouth. Inside, we were able to write a wish/blessing on a wooden wishing plaque to hang on the shrine's grounds amongst all of the others. You have to purchase a plaque, but for the price it's well worth it.

Meiji Shrine was such a great start to our day, and we were fortunate to get an early start because it gave us the rest of the day to explore. The shrine is very close to Harajuku – a must visit destination for anyone visiting Tokyo. It's where I experienced my first cat café, witnessed an owl café, bought a few souvenirs, an paid tribute to an area of Tokyo that has one hell of a personality. 

We went there on a Sunday, which I'd read was the best day of the week to see some of the wildest and weirdest dressed folks in Tokyo. While we did walk down Takeshita Dori but didn't witness any crazy costumes, (we probably missed the spot where it all goes down) we definitely felt the energy.

Taking friends for a face time stroll

Taking friends for a face time stroll

Harajuku storefronts

Harajuku storefronts

 

One of the best things we did in Harajuku was visit Reissue, a coffee house that makes latte art of anything you want in either 2D or 3D! For us, it was our faces. And umm, we were freaked out over how much it looked like us, seriously. We laughed, took photos, and then drank our faces off. Literally. 

After we embraced the madness of Harajuku, we strolled through Omotesando - which is known as the Champs-Elysées of Tokyo - a great place to spend some time perusing high end stores. We didn't stay long, as we were due for a pit stop back at the hotel for a short nap before continuing onward! Since we stayed in Shibuya, we were very close to Daikanyama, an area that had been on my list since I first started researching. As a designer, I was told this area was a must - so we mustered up our remaining energy from an already busy day and made the trek (a 15 minute walk from our hotel) to this lovely area. We got lucky as it was 72 degrees and sunny, making this particularly beautiful place that much more beautiful. Our first stop was T-Site book store, nestled in the midst of lovely garden grounds. The facade of the building has a repeating white 'T' that adds to the overall thoughtfulness of the design, and it has 6 unique departments (stationary, music, books, etc.), all worthy of your strolling time.

Encountering my two friends, Photoshop and Illustrator.

Encountering my two friends, Photoshop and Illustrator.

We also got a slice of pie at Matsunosuke bakery, and ventured out past T-site, admiring all that Daikanyama had to offer, including this man and his pups.

We spent Sunday night relaxing in anticipation of the sumo tournament on Monday.

Day 4: Monday, May 15, 2017

Chris and I lucked out as we just so happened to be in Tokyo while a sumo tournament was going on. If you are interested, The Japan Sumo official website lists when tournaments occur. Prior to our arrival, I kept my eye on the ticket release date, and we were lucky enough to score two. Before the tournament, we made a stop at Tokyo station and explored a few fun stores, mostly through character street (a strip of shops that sell fun Japanese characters) and then made our way over to The Imperial Palace nearby before heading over to Ryōgoku Kokugikan for the tournament.

Character shoppin'

Character shoppin'

Experiencing a sumo tournament live is one of the top ten coolest things I have ever done in my lifetime. The matches are quick but the excitement builds as the top division wrestlers enter the stage around 3:45pm. (The tournament starts very early around 8:30am and ends at 6pm). Since we booked our tickets ahead of time through Viator, we had a tour guide that taught us a thing or two about sumo history as well as some of the fun facts. I mean, who knew there was a Nicolas Cage look alike sumo wrestler as well as a sumo heartthrob

After the tournament, we made our way to Ginza (another popular hood in Tokyo) before our dinner reservation. Ginza is straight glamour and women were walking around dressed to impress on a Monday night - impressive. On the way, we explored Itoya, which is an amazing stationary store where we scored a few helvetica pencils and got to explore a Moleskine pop up shop inside. I was in a bit of designer heaven. We set off with our new souvenirs and made our way to dinner, starving and ready for sushi.

Our dinner at Kyubey was one of the most memorable dinners we had during our time in Japan. We were able to get counter seats (book early through your concierge!) We chose Omakase, ten pieces of delicious nigiri served one at a time. Every piece was melt-in-your-mouth level and unforgettable. The owner was incredibly kind and took the time to teach us the correct way to eat sushi with chopsticks and with hands, and the sushi chefs were playful and fun - they all had a great sense of humor!  I was sure to say 'Oishi', which means delicious in Japanese - and I found that it's a word that's truly appreciated when expressed after a great meal.

Kyubey was the perfect way to say goodbye to Tokyo. We went home to get a good night of sleep before catching a train to Takayama in the morning, which I will cover in my next post!

Tokyo truly blew our minds on so many levels. Not only were we able to do so much in 4 days, but we were in awe of how clean and safe Tokyo (and Japan in general) is. Bikes were parked free of locks and every bathroom is pristine (umm why aren't bidets the norm in the US? ). Everyone is so incredibly kind, helpful and respectful. (Not one person bumped into us in the entire 2 weeks we were in Japan, not even through Shibuya crossing). I was humbled by a culture that's really got it all figured out. To be honest, I felt ashamed that we don't emulate the same actions in the US.

I'm so excited to share the rest of our journey with you! My next post will cover the Japan alps (Takayama, Shirakawa-go and Kanazawa) which was definitely a slower pace than Tokyo.

Have you ever been to Japan? I would love to hear about your journey! If you are interested is behind the scenes tips and all of the additional research (from collecting killer itineraries from friends and countless hours of perusing the web), please email me at info@athingortwoblog.com. I've included a few tips below as well!

Have a great week!


Japan Tips: 

Always carry yen. Chris constantly had a pocket full of yen because we'd always encounter a souvenir shop, vending machine or anything else that only accepted yen. If you take a bus, they ask for exact change (even though it isn't necessary) so it's nice to have it on hand.

Taxi doors close themselves. Do not try to close a taxi door, they are automatic and the driver will be confused if you close them yourself.

Do not tip!  You will only confuse your driver, waiter or whoever else that you believe is tip worthy and you might find someone chasing after you to give you your money back.

 Drinking and eating on the go is not a part of the culture. In Japan, you won't see anyone walking around with a Starbucks coffee and a donut. Everyone takes the time to sit down and consume their meal or drink.

 Chopsticks. Never leave your chopsticks sticking straight up in your rice bowl. We avoided chopsticks sticking straight up in general, in any meal.

Public transportation > taxi. The trains in Tokyo are your best mode of transportation. They are faster than taxis and cost effective. When choosing a hotel, I'd recommend staying in one near a train station. That way, you can zip around easily. If you will be traveling around Japan and not staying in one location, consider getting a Japan Rail Pass.

Give and receive with two hands. In Japan, everyone hands things to you with two hands. You should accept what they hand you with two hands, and offer with two hands.

Choose your shoes wisely. My trusty Fit Bit informed me that I was walking around 20k steps a day, which is around 10 miles. I brought a pair of New Balance and Adidas sneakers, as well as Cole Haan loafers for dressier occasions. In my opinion, heels are a huge waste of luggage space.

• Don't do too much in one day. When you're in Tokyo, you want to do it all. I get it. You've traveled far and you've got a solid itinerary to get through. Spoiler alert: Tokyo is huge and everyone who's ever been there undoubtedly has a list of things they didn't get to do. I urge you to not do too much in one day. It's draining and instead of focusing on a few things, you're just running to get to the next without appreciating the moment. We ran into so many travelers who were just exhausted and you could tell they were in checklist mode. Plan enough so that you have the things you really want to do, but leave room for flexibility and down time so that you are experiencing local life instead of tourist life.

Get up early for touristy attractions. Crowds are real and if it's hot, the heat is not something you're going to want to face at midday. Early mornings  = fewer crowds, pleasant weather, better photo opps, and more time in the day for other things.