japan

Destination Japan part two: Kyoto

It's hard to pick a favourite place we visited in Japan, but I must say Kyoto is right up there at the top! The size of the city, the history, the temples. And we had the best ramen of our trip there, so obvs that's the most important. And more amazing food. 

But before we get to Kyoto, we tick off another highlight of our checklist (especially Chris' list) which is taking the Shinkansen. We got a weekly JR rail pass, which served us an absolute treat. You can take most trains throughout Japan, there is only 2 exceptions: one of which we of course managed to try and take. Thing is, if you can't read Japanese it proves quite difficult to figure out which train you can't get on. But besides that, the Shinkansen is an absolute joy to travel on! I don't have to tell you it's super quick (320 kms / h), it's so clean, so on time and such a great place to enjoy one of the bento lunch boxes you get from the stations. 

(DO) Order a JR Rail pass well in time before you leave on your travels. The pass is only available for tourists, and they send it to your home address.

Cleaners waiting in line to give the Shinkansen a once over before departure, in the best coloured outfits I've ever seen!

Ramen, Tempura, wagyu & korokke

(STAY) Hotel Gracery - Japan, 〒160-8466 Tokyo, Shinjuku, 歌舞伎町1丁目19−1 SHINJUKU TOHO BLDG
Accommodation in Kyoto is something that needs to be booked as soon as you know you're going, as it gets booked up very quickly, especially on the weekends and during holidays. We stayed at Hotel Gracery, a lovely modern, clean hotel filled with Muji items and Shiseido products, and very central. A great location to explore from, and very helpful staff. 

Arriving in Kyoto, it's 'town like' feel is a breath of fresh air after Tokyo's madness. We walk from the station to our hotel, through little streets filled with bikes and boutique shops. The local feel instantly makes us feel at home. After wandering around Nakanocho, exploring the small shops around there, we worked up an appetite for something we've been looking forward to since we got it recommended by our friend Nick who lives in Japan: Ramen Sen No Kaze. Apparently one of the best to be found, so popular you have to turn up early otherwise they might have sold out. 

Food scenes on the streets of Kyoto

(EAT) Ramen Sen No Kaze - 580 Nakanocho (Shinkyogokudori), Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 604-8042, Japan
Let's start with what it all is about. This was probably the best Tonkotsu ramen we had this trip. The broth is so creamy, rich and has a hint of smokiness, the pickled egg soft and savoury, the pork melt in the mouth delicious. Back here in Europe I'm not the biggest fan of pork (unless it's bacon, that's a different story altogether), as I generally find it quite a tough, flavourless meat, but somehow all the pork that we had in Japan seems to come from a different planet! Or I'm just hoping they have generally had a happy life, and that's why you can taste the difference. We had the Kyo no Shio Issui that comes with out of this world gyoza and a lovely refreshing beer. What else would you want? 

That ticked off the list, we basically ate our way around Kyoto! These were our favourites: 

(EAT) Apollo+ - Japan, 〒604-8111 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Nakagyō-ku, Masuyachō (Sanjōdōri), 三条堺町東入る桝屋町67
We came across this place by accident. We wanted to try Kichi Kichi Omurice, but as we were in Kyoto for the weekend, it was absolutely impossible to get a reservation, so we decided to stroll the streets and just pick somewhere for dinner. And it turned out to be the best choice! No overpriced omelette for us, but beautiful fresh tuna with radish, Wagyu beef, veg tempura, gyoza,  my pick of the menu: tofu curd skewers, since I like to try the unknown, and much more. The couple next to us laughed at the amount of food that was piled onto our table, and the stream of new dishes didn't seem to stop. We combined it with some beautiful sake, which was also laughed upon as you drink sake in winter, not in September. But heck, when in Rome.. I mean Japan.. 

(EAT) Tiger Gyoza - 579-7-5 Nakanochō (Shinkyōgokudōri), Nakagyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 604-8042, Japan
Well, this one is a bit of a guilty pleasure. We're both such suckers for gyoza, that we fancied an entire meal of them. Tiger Gyoza is a bit of a chain, but that didn't mean the gyoza weren't good. In fact, it was a perfect way to satisfy our dumpling hunger. We ordered several different ones, from steamed to fried (one comes as a crispy circle of gyoza) and some side dishes like mapo tofu. YUM. 

(DO) Nishiki Market - Japan, 〒604-8054 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, 富小路通四条上る西大文字町609番地 
If you like food, you should go to Nishiki market. Simple. Everything from korokke to pickles, seafood to handmade knives. It was incredibly hard for me not to blow our entire holiday budget here, especially after seeing the talented people make those knives! 

1600 Temples

Details at Kiyomizu-Dera

(DO) Kiyomizu-Dera - 294 Kiyomizu 1-chome, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0862, Japan
Kyoto is filled with breathtaking temples (apparently close to 1600 of them!), and we only managed to visit two of the main ones during our time here, one of them being Kiyomizu-Dera. But it's not just the temple that special, as we found. We walked from Gion, via Kennin-ji towards Kiyomizu-Dera, and on the way stumbled onto the beautiful old streets of Ninnen-zaka and Sannen-zaka. Walking through here you feel like you've stepped back in time, as it's filled with old Japanese wooden buildings, stacked along the sloping streets that lead up to the temple. It's also the perfect spot to try some of the hundreds of snacks on offer, like freshly made rice crackers in all sorts of flavours, sweets or potato korokke (the Japanese version of, you guessed it, the croquette).

Wandering around Ninnen-zaka & Sannen-zaka
Right: the best fresh rice crackers!

Arriving the top, you find yourself at the entrance to the temple. Part of it can be visited for free, but I'd recommend paying the entrance fee and having a look around the inner temple grounds. The history of the buildings is astonishing ( it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site), there are lot's of different buildings to admire within the grounds, and you get to enjoy a pretty stunning view over Kyoto from the mountainside. Fun fact: the main temple is constructed without using a single nail!

(DO) Fushimi Inari - 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 612-0882, Japan
This was the second shrine we visited, world famous for it's enormous amount of 'torii' . The streets leading up to the shrine are again filled with lot's of mouth watering foods, and the shrine itself is overwhelmingly beautiful. As we went on the Sunday, it was absolutely packed, so after admiring the torii we quickly escaped into the bamboo forest in the shrine, and then headed to the nearest coffee shop Vermillion. 

Torii & bamboo at Fushimi Inari

(DRINK) Vermillion - cafe - Japan, 〒612-0805 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Fushimi-ku, Fukakusa Kaidoguchichō, 5−31
Tucked away near Fushimi Inari, this was a great find and an oasis of calm. Fantastic coffee, overlooking a small lake. 

Left & centre: Coffee at Vermillion cafe
Right: details around in the streets around Fushimi Inari

Tea is the word

For my British tea loving readers, this is your chance. I know, our tea habits are not to be compared to the Japanese ones, but I'm sure to say that both nations have a bit of a passion for the drink. Kyoto is the center of the tea ceremony, and if you have a chance, it's a beautiful, meditative experience. 

(DO) Tea Ceremony En - 272 Matsubaracho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0063, Japan

Memoirs of a Geisha

I haven't seen the same named film, but when I read the book it made a long lasting impression on me, even though it's a fictional story. It has probably unknowingly triggered some of the fascination I have for Japan, as it talks about the rituals of the country, as well as the history and culture. It left such a mysterious and magical feeling with me, and I was curious if I would rediscover this feeling when walking the streets of Gion. And I did.

Walking around the little streets of the area described in the book, especially Hanamikoji Dori, at night gave me a feeling of stepping back in time. The cobbled streets, lit by small dimmed lights, are quiet, yet you can see silhouettes moving behind the rice paper sliding doors of the wooden houses, accompanied by the sound of laughter. It's like you are passing through this other dimension of the city. If you are really lucky, you might spot a geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha), rushing from door to door. We were so very lucky to see two, in the most beautiful kimonos I've ever laid my eyes on, carefully created hairstyles and with the intriguing nape make up. I can only speak in words here and not in images, as it's considered very inappropriate and rude to photograph a geisha. This is part of the reason why they are very shy, and try not to spend too much time out on the street.  

When you get to Kyoto you might feel like you see geisha everywhere, but you will soon find out these are mostly Asian tourists dressing up in kimonos for the day. As one of the hotel staff taught us: if you see them strolling, and taking selfies, they are not geisha. A true geisha tries to stay as unnoticed as possible, and is very shy. So if you want to see them, make sure you head to the backstreets in the evenings (when they entertain), and keep your eyes open! 

(DO) Hanamikoji Dori - Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 600-8340, Japan
(DO) Gion Shirakawa - Japan, 〒605-0085 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, 末吉町大和大路通四条上る

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Left: Not geisha, just a bunch of lovely girls dressed in lovely kimonos
Middle: Learning the art of the tea ceremony at 'En'
Right: Details of Gion

Destination Japan: Tokyo

Left: details in the backstreets of Harajuku
Right: Details of the Meiji Shrine

Japan had been on our travel wishlist for as long as I can remember, so in order to have a reason to go and splash out on a great adventure we got married.  And hopped on a plane to Japan within 48 hours of saying I do! Just kidding about the reason we got married though, I'm so proud and honoured I get to share my life with my wonderful human being Chris. 

Everyone has their own idea of the ideal post wedding escape, often involving picture perfect beaches and palm trees. That's not us. One: because I almost get a sunburn as soon as I leave the house. Two: Hubby and me are too impatient to lie on the beach, and basically can't deal with doing nothing, unless it is sleeping for 2 days in a 5 star hotel to recover from all the wedding madness. So instead we thought, why not give ourselves a good old culture shock and explore a country that is as unknown to us as having cured pork intestines for breakfast (yes for real, but that's for another blog).

As I've got too many beautiful images to share to put in one post, I'll be dedicating a blog to each city we visited. It's no way a complete travel guide to Japan, but it certainly contains some great discoveries, and I hope one day you'll be looking up some of these spots when you're about to hop on a plane to the country of cherry blossoms and sushi! 

The arrival

City of 35 million people. What better way to recover from a wedding and the biggest jet lag ever experienced? 
You book a splash out hotel where you can just stay in and do nothing. I mean, nothing except sleep, eat your leftover wedding cake (yes I took a tupperware box of it because I can't bare throwing away food), and use the spa. Usually we travel pretty cheaply, sleeping in the car if we need or want to (okay that only happened once and it was awful), but we somehow thought that wouldn't really fit this occasion. To be honest, if you book at the right time, even the most luxurious hotels in Tokyo go for normal prices, and we were pretty lucky we found ourselves a lovely room in the Conrad hotel. After getting ourselves a 'just married' upgrade, with the lovely view below and complementary honeymoon cake, we dozed off into pamper heaven...

[EAT] Ginza Bairin - 7 Chome-8-1 Ginza, 中央区 Tokyo 104-0061, Japan
Fantastic Katsu Don, the most tender pork loin and very well priced. 

[STAY] Conrad Tokyo - 1 Chome-9-1 Higashishinbashi, Minato, Tokyo 105-7337, Japan
Beautifully modern 5-star hotel with spa, panoramic city views and the best service I've had in any hotel so far. 

View from our room at the Conrad // Room details

[EAT] Ichiran -  1 Chome-22-7 Jinnan, 渋谷区 Tokyo 150-0041, Japan
Okay, usually I'm all about supporting local and small businesses, but this one is quite an experience. Ichiran is a Tonkotsu Ramen chain, so you'll find them in more places other than this one in Shibuya. Like at many ramen restaurants, you order and pay at the machine and give your tickets to the server. In this particular chain, you also fill in a form about how you want your noodles done, level of spiciness etc, when you sit down in your single booth. After your ramen arrives the server closes the little 'shopwindow' in front of your seat so you can slurp away in peace. And the ramen are lush! 

There are so many amazing ramen places, established ones and new ones popping up all the time all over town, so it's quite impossible to track them down sometimes. So just head out and pop in somewhere!

Ramen at my personal dining booth at Ichiran // The busy Shibuya crossing at night


[EAT] Sometaro Okonomiyaki - 2 Chome-2-2 Nishiasakusa, 台東区 Tokyo 111-0035, Japan
I have a big love for savoury food over sweet, so these savoury Japanese pancakes are one of the ways to my heart. You can pick from several flavours, we had one with normal pork and one with ginger (LOVE), you sit on the floor, and you make the pancakes yourself. 

Entrance and empty plates at Sometaro Okonomiyaki

Escaping the city

Tokyo, but also Japan in general, is a place of opposites and contrasts. Busy markets and shopping streets are countered by temples, shrines and parks. Harajuku girls, cosplay characters and robots share this beautiful land with monks and businessmen and women. Never have I visited a country where tradition and the future, nature and human development co-exist in such harmony. To escape the busy city and get some peace and quiet we visited some of the extraordinary parks and shrines that Tokyo has to offer. 

[DO] Shinjuku Gyoen - 11 Naitōmachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyō-to 160-0014, Japan
In this national garden you can find a mix of the traditional Japanese, English and the French Gardens. It's a perfect place to enjoy an afternoon away from the city.

[DO] Meiji Jingu - 1-1 Yoyogikamizonochō, Shibuya-ku, Tōkyō-to 151-8557, Japan
This shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, and is located next to Harajuku. The shrine is free to enter, but there are beautiful inner gardens as well where a small fee must be paid. In these gardens you can also find Kiyomasa's Well, which is believed to be one of Tokyo's strongest positive power spots.

Left & Centre: Details of Shinjuku Gyoen
Right: Writing our wishes at the offering hall at Meiji Jingu

Tsukiji Fish Market

[DO] Tsukiji Fish Market - 5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan

I admit. We didn't get up (or stay awake ) at 2AM to get to the tuna auction you can watch as a visitor. The awkward time difference between the UK and Japan made sure we had a pretty bad jet lag, and we just couldn't part with our bed just yet. If you do want to watch the famous tuna auction, you have to get to the fish market for about 3AM, get in, and wait until 5:25AM until the first auction, or 5:50AM for the second. Also note that the number of visitors is limited to 120 per day, on a first come first serve basis. 

Details of the old Tsukiji Fish Market
 

Instead, we slept like babies until 7:30, had breakfast and headed to the market for 9AM. From around this time you can enter the wholesale market as most of the busy trading has finished. But not to worry, there is still so much to see! I wouldn't want to be there any earlier, as you'd be interfering with people trying to do business. Now we could walk around, admire fish and seafood we'd never seen before, take photos whilst dodging the scooters zipping around to pick up and drop off fish. Believe me, those drivers are mad and you have to fear for your life. I hope you get the chance to visit the market before it moves to it's new location in 2017/18 as the old structure is just as impressive as the fish market itself. 

Iriya

Now I'm jumping from the start of our trip to the last. After our travels to Kyoto, Hiroshima and Hakone (where I'll be writing blogs about as well) we returned to Tokyo for the last leg of our wonderful time in Japan. As we explored a lot of the more well known areas of Tokyo at the start of our trip, we decided to stay a bit more local this time. First stop, the neighbourhood of Iriya. Great location to roam the backstreets, yet still so close to public transport in case you do want to get around the city.

[STAY] Edo Sakura ( 3 Chome-2-13 Shitaya, Taitō-ku, Tōkyō-to 110-0004, Japan )
Minimalist, understated traditional Japanese rooms, and that includes sleeping on futons! Great hotel with lovely staff, most of them speaking English (which is something we really got to appreciate during our time here!). 

[FOOD] Banninriki 万人力 ( Japan, 〒110-0013 Tōkyō-to, Taitō-ku, Iriya, 1 Chome−24, 入谷1-24-2 )
I'm going to say this over and over again, all the ramen we had were fantastic. This one was slightly different to the ramen we were used to, as it's a dry ramen with little bit of sauce at the bottom instead of noodles in soup. I love ordering it with a half boiled egg, which just adds an amazing creaminess to the dish. I guess you could almost say it's a Japanese version of carbonara (please forgive me!). Plus I can never stop myself from ordering all the toppings, like fermented bamboo shoots, spring onion and nori. And of course the pork! Fun fact here again is that you order from a vending machine. They'll give you an English translation card, but it still doesn't always make sense. Just experiment, or try to figure out which button is the most worn, must be popular then!

Ramen at Banninriki with a heaven of toppings: fermented bamboo, half boiled egg, nori and spring onion.
And a beer, as it would be rude not to. 

Meguro

If I had to pick a place in Tokyo to live, it could well be here! For the last night we decided to treat ourselves to a stay in the worlds first design hotel Claska, in the lovely neighbourhood of Meguro. For those who know me personally, the place is filled with vintage shops and independent boutiques, so I easily could have spent all my money here, I'm in heaven. 

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Exploring Meguro on our funky (complementary!) bikes from Claska

Bringing me back down to earth hubby suggested we take the complementary Claska Bikes and explore Tokyo in a new way. And to be honest, cycling in Tokyo feels like a breeze after getting used to London traffic. It's like being back in Holland! (except for I can't read any signs and it's a lovely 25 degrees C).

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Pastel dreams at Claska Tokyo

[STAY] Claska, Japan, 〒152-0001 Tōkyō-to, Meguro-ku, Chūōchō, 1 Chome−1−3−18

[SHOP] The area of Takaban, filled with lot's of vintage clothing shops and foods of all sorts. 

[SHOP] Walk or cycle along Meguro Dori towards the Otori Shrine and you'll find vintage interior shops dotted around either side of the street. And don't forget to visit the shop in Claska!

[EAT] Senba Meguro  〒153-0064 Tōkyō-to, Meguro-ku, Shimomeguro, 6 Chome−1−24
Local recommendation. Very small restaurant with daily changing menu, where the chef gives his take on Japanese cuisine with the freshest ingredients. Imagine scallop sashimi, Japanese beef stew and grilled tuna on the bone with Japanese grated radish. Have your Japanese phrasebook or Google translate by your side, as the owners do not speak a word of English, but that's part of the experience. They were the loveliest most genuine people you could imagine, and rushed to one of the other Japanese guests who turned out to speak English, and who started to translate the entire menu for us. We ended up saying: we'll have what you're having. Best decision!
www.senba-meguro.com

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The neighbourhood of Meguro is filled with quirky architecture, tucked away cafes and vintage shops. 


That's it for Tokyo, for now! Soon I'll be sharing our adventures and tips for Kyoto, Hiroshima and Hakone as well. 
In the meantime, I'd love to hear what your favourite spots are in Japan!