Disclaimer: The following is thorough…extremely thorough. I write so much on my trip reports (and always have – I’ll probably post some retro reviews when things get slow) for several reasons: As a journal/report for myself, to help others who may be planning trips to the same destinations, and (now) to benefit anyone who finds our blog while searching for specific terms (I know I relied on others’ blogs in planning). The point is, the post is long. If you don’t feel like reading, scroll through and find the pictures you like then read about them…there will not be a quiz when I return…unless that is a trick. So here it is, the Japan wrap up:
Arriving in Japan after a 2 hour 45 minute flight in Cathay Pacific business class (which was excellent), it quickly became evident that we were not in Hong Kong any longer…The country’s respective cross walk sounds do a better job of describing the difference than I could: Hong Kong was like an old time bell/ringing fire alarm going off when it was time to cross the street; Japan was like a pleasant, occasional intercom chime.
The Japanese are a very quiet group. They keep to themselves and are always courteous. This is not to say they are unfriendly; they just seemed to be more of the type to not go out of their way to start conversations.
Everything was also extremely orderly in Japan. Getting on/off the subway was different than Hong Kong, where when the doors opened everyone just started moving on and off at the same time. In Japan, everyone entering stood at the side of the doors and waited as the passengers exiting the subway left through the center.
The Japanese also had a distinctly different look to them than the people of Hong Kong. Travelling in all of these Asian countries back to back, you get a feel for exactly how different the cultures are – though they all seem to share the same core values.
Communicating in Japan was a little more difficult than Hong Kong. English was listed on all public transportation signs and announced on public transportation after Japanese. Sometimes you almost felt a little guilty wondering why English was being announced on a bus in Kyoto…We were in a foreign country that does not have an English speaking population and in a smaller city, yet they were announcing every stop in English on the bus. It was unexpected, but we certainly appreciated it.
And speaking of public transportation, I found Japan to be slightly more difficult than Hong Kong, but still not overly difficult to navigate if you have patience – with Kyoto being the more difficult of the two. With that said, we only got on the wrong train once, and that was in Kyoto. And technically speaking, it was the right train headed in the right direction, but the wrong version.
Taxis are expensive in Japan, though really not that much more than they are in the US. The meter starts at around $8 US, and that gets you about a half kilometer. That said, the taxi drivers are something else. They were all extremely courteous and would go out of their way to help you out. Many of them would also slip on their white gloves after you got in the car.
We were again fortunate to have good weather in Japan. It snowed one day in Kyoto, which was actually nice, and there was only one day in Tokyo with more than a 10% chance of rain.
We arrived in Osaka (KIX) after a 2:45 flight from Hong Kong. Cathay Pacific again exceeded our expectations. The business class lounge at HKG was great. There was a lot of food and drink options – both local and Western – as well as different restaurants and coffee shops to spend your time. Our flight was delayed for a little over two hours, but we did not mind at all.
The flight itself was also very good. We were fortunate to have had a plane fitted with Cathay Pacific’s newest business class “suites.” From reading on the internet, many frequent flyers consider this the best business class seat in the sky. Service was also very good again, though not as attentive as first class (where there was two flight attendant for 3 passengers)…still great though. I was again disappointed that the flight was not longer.
Upon landing, we made it very quickly through immigration and customs and had no trouble purchasing tickets and catching the limousine bus to Kyoto. The bus ride to Kyoto Station was about an hour and half. The bus itself was a regular bus; “limousine bus” is just what they call the buses that run from airports in Japan. This was a much more economical way of getting to Kyoto (at about $30/person) than taking a taxi, which would have cost about $200.
At Kyoto Station, we planned to catch a taxi to the hotel. This was the first spot we had some trouble. The first taxi we found could not understand us at all. So we walked around looking for a more organized taxi stand that could help us translate, but there was none. We went back to the first spot and the second taxi we talked to recognized the name Hyatt and was able to take us there.
The Hyatt was a very nice hotel, though a good bit smaller than the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong. Everyone was very helpful. Our only real complaint was that the bed was pretty hard, though that seems to be more of the Japanese style.
After settling in, we caught a taxi to Giro Giro Hitoshina for dinner. I had made reservations through the hotel concierge when planning for Japan. We were kind of tired by this point and probably would have just stayed home, but there was a fee for cancelling the day of the reservation…thankfully. We went and really enjoyed the restaurant.
Giro Giro (I’ve also seen it spelled Guillo Guillo) was a counter seating small restaurant that serves a set menu consisting of Kaiseke (classic Japanese) style food. The chef was very friendly and spoke some English. He really made an effort to communicate with us which we truly appreciated – especially considering we were the visitors to his country.
The food was good; we liked some courses more than others. We also tried some out there stuff, including fish livers which I actually liked.
At the end of the meal, we had some tea. Then you have to ask for the check, which they bring to you, seemingly almost embarrassed to have to ask you to pay. There is also no tipping in Japan, though some restaurants will include a 5%-10% service fee. The chef then lead us to the door and bowed as we walked down the street.
After Giro Giro, we caught a cab back to the Hyatt using the hotel’s “take me home, I’m lost card” – or at least that is what I call them. Really, they are just the name of the hotel in Japanese and the location on a map. Either way, the taxi driver gets it right away instead of struggling to communicate with them.
This ride gave us an idea of what to expect from Japanese taxis. The driver smiled at us and slipped on his white gloves as soon as we got in. He was very friendly and was trying his best to communicate with us, though we couldn’t do much. By the time we made it to the hotel (~10 minutes), Alyce had fallen in love with the old taxi driver. Upon getting back, we crashed after a long day.
To start day 2 we did not set an alarm, so we got a late start. I slept great, but Alyce had a little trouble with the hard beds. After a slow morning, we walked to the hotel restaurant to eat our included breakfast. It was a very nice buffet featuring just about any Western options you could want, along with an optional menu of Japanese items.
Following breakfast, we walked to the train station by the hotel to catch the train to the Fushimi Inari temple. Trains in Japan work by you first looking at where you are going and finding out what your fare is to get there. Then you buy a ticket for that amount and walk through the gate, being sure to grab your ticket because you need to run it through the machine when you exit the train system…Alyce missed that memo, which is probably my fault.
Anyway, this was the only time in Japan we got on the wrong train, which was mainly a result of seeing the train doors open when we walked down and rushing on without checking it was the right train. A tip to all travelers out there: never rush on a train when you are not 100% sure of what you are doing. So we ended up on the Rapid Express train when we should have been on the limited express, which meant that they would skip the stop we were supposed to get off at. It ended up not being a big deal; it just wasted some time.
Upon (finally) arriving at the temple stop, Alyce had some trouble because she did not have her ticket, so I bought her another one. She still had a little trouble with the process and ended up just jumping through the gate…For all we know, she may be a fugitive in Japan for her subway hijinks – despite paying double the actual fare.
You pass a lot of neat little shops walking to the temple – not knock off type stuff. At the temple itself, the first thing you realize is that for the Japanese it is a temple, not a tourist destination. Though, Kyoto is apparently a pretty popular tourist destination for Japanese people, so many of them may have been tourists too.
The Japanese people would wash their hands and mouths in a communal fountain, than would give a donation to the temple, ring a bell, and bow their heads and pray. It was neat to witness. There are several walking paths to take, which are all lined by orange gates. These are mostly donated by Japanese companies, as it is supposed to bring them good fortune.
Following Fushimi Inari, we caught the train to Gion (without issue). Gion is the old downtown of Kyoto. Walking around during the day was interesting, but there wasn’t too much to see. Supposedly at night, there are Geisha in full dress walking around the area.
Across the river is Kyoto’s modern downtown. There, we walked through the shopping arcade, which was like a covered street with shops on either side. And right by the shopping arcade is Kyoto’s main market: the Nishiki Market. Here they sold all sorts of fish/seafood/meat/fruit/vegetables…really almost any sort of food product. I really liked walking through the market and seeing everything.
After making our way back to the hotel to get ready for dinner, we got ready and had complimentary drinks at the bar along with some finger food. I don’t know if we were offered this because of my Diamond status with Hyatt or if it is offered to everyone, but it was nice. The manager stopped by to check how our stay was going and asked if there was anything else he could do. Unfortunately, we only had time for one drink.
We next caught a taxi to Isshin. Isshin is a restaurant I had been excited about ever since I found it when planning the trip. Here they serve very high quality beef in many different ways – from raw to cooked, tenderloin to stomach…And it surpassed my high expectations. Really, any lover of beef should eat here once.
This was another counter style restaurant, which is really cool because you watch the chef work right in front of you. Here there was only the master chef, an apprentice, and a lady helping/working front of house. Sidebar on Japan, because staff is paid a wage, there is generally less of them at Japanese restaurants – and they are amazingly efficient compared to American restaurants.
The chef and apprentice both spoke a little English and made an effort to explain our meal to us, which we again really appreciated. The meal and service were excellent; I don’t know how to describe it other than meat perfection…I guess beef heaven could also get the point across.
The meal concludes with some tea, many thank you’s, then the master chef leading us out the door and bowing as we walk away…Again, the service in Japan is just something else.
After eating breakfast at the hotel, we decided to try our luck at the Kyoto bus system as it was the most efficient way of getting to the areas we wanted to see.
First we caught a bus to Kyoto Station where we actually needed to catch a train to Arishiyama. The bus to Kyoto Station was pretty easy…you just catch any bus that passes the hotel because they are all heading there.
Getting around Kyoto Station was more difficult. There are tons of trains leaving to go everywhere in Japan. Each train has a couple versions (meaning various stops), and Kyoto was not nearly as well labeled in English as the Tokyo train stations/subways. There also was not as many attendants around the station as you would expect.
Nonetheless, we ended up finding the train we needed to get on and made it to Arishiyama. Once there we started walking toward some of the sights to see. A quick notes about maps in Japan…they all face different directions, i.e. North is not always up. That takes some getting used to, and I don’t know that I ever really got used to it.
We first walked across the Togetsukyo bridge. It was a picturesque scene, but that was about it. Also it was pretty cold.
From there we made our way to the Bamboo forest and walked the path through there. This was really neat and different. The bamboo whirled around from the wind of that day, which had an added bonus of shielding us from the wind.
Along the bamboo forest path was the entrance to Tenryu-ji temple, which we decided to check out…this ended up being a good decision. The temple site was an extremely quiet and serene place. We (especially Alyce) were getting cold when we walked in though. I snapped one picture of her giving me the “Chunk look” which I wasn’t supposed to post…Oh well.
Anyway the temple site was very scenic, and – to top is off – it started to snow while we were out there. We soaked in the scene, snapped a ton of pictures, then headed out.
Needing to catch a cab to our next spot, we walked around some pretty quiet streets in Arishiyama looking for one. Kyoto is generally a relatively quiet and laid back city – a chef at breakfast described Tokyo as Mars compared to Kyoto. On top of that, it was winter, so it was even less crowded than usual. Finally, we saw a cab and flagged him down.
Our next stop was the Ryoan-ji temple. This is a temple which features an elaborate rock garden. It was neat to see and take some pictures of, but there was not much else to do there.
About a 20 minute walk from Ryoan-ji, was the next temple on our agenda – Kinkaku-ji, which is also called the Golden Pavillion. This is a large golden temple set on a lake. It quite the site…And as an added bonus, the sun had come out to close out our day. We then caught the correct bus home for about $1 a person, and that took around 45 minutes.
Our final Kyoto dinner was Sushi Imai. This was the only spot in Japan that we had a true language barrier issue. When we walked in, it was clear that not much English was being spoken. The server handed us a menu in Japanese, and came back a couple minutes later with a pad and said “order.” Fortunately, I knew the term “omakase” which means that you’ll leave it to the chef – basically feed me the best bets for the day.
The chef recognized what I was trying to say, smiled, and said ok. I also was able to pick out a bottle of wine based on the picture of the bottle from the menu. He served us several pieces of sushi, all of which was delicious. We would be served several of the same pieces a couple days late at Kanesaka in Tokyo.
Once or twice, the chef came by and asked us “full?” while patting his belly. We said no a couple times before giving in and saying we were full, though we really could have at the entire menu a second time around.
The food at Sushi Imai was very good, but the atmosphere was a little intimidating. No English was spoken, and you sat at a rectangular counter that was filled with other Japanese people. I would only recommend it to the most adventurous travelers, though it is probably great for the Japanese.
After catching a cab home, we packed and called it a night.
After eating our last breakfast at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto, we caught a taxi to Kyoto Station and bought a ticket for the Nozomi Shinkansen “bullet train.” This is the fastest way to get from Kyoto to Tokyo, taking about 2 hours on the Nozomi which makes the fewest stops.
The bullet train operates at approximately 170 mph, and you can really tell it is moving when you look out the window.
Unfortunately, this was one of our “oops” moments of the trip – nothing too big, but a pain nonetheless. We bought the correct ticket and made our way directly to the right train. The problem was that the ticket was in all Japanese. I thought there would be a specific car we should get on, but I could not figure it out. When the train arrived, I asked one of the operators. I could tell he was trying to direct us to another train car but couldn’t communicate it. Eventually, he just pointed us on where he was.
We found two seats next to each other and thought everything was good. Shortly after the train departed, we realized we were on a reserved car…and shortly after that, someone came and checked our tickets and told us (as nicely as possible) that we needed to head to cars 1-3 for unreserved tickets. Lugging our luggage through 5 fast moving rail cars was no fun at all, but Alyce stuck it out like a trooper and did not complain at all. Fortunately, we found spots together and the rest of the trip was fine.
Navigating Tokyo station upon arrival was easier than I expected. We went straight to the taxi line and caught a taxi to the Park Hyatt Tokyo. After no less than 20 “welcome to the Park Hyatt” greetings, we were escorted to our suite for check in.
The Park Hyatt was unbelievable…pretty much the hotel equivalent to our first class flight over. We had a suite for four nights – thanks to my status with Hyatt and credit card sign up free nights. Otherwise, this room would have cost $2000 a night.
It was huge, especially by Tokyo standards. Our room was exactly 100 square meters (about 1100 sq. ft.). We had an entry foyer, a large living area, a bedroom, and a huge bathroom. We also were able to take breakfast everyday – either in the restaurant or room service. And one final, extra nice benefit of my Hyatt status was free drinks (unlimited) in the New York bar from 5 to 7 every night. One of us might have over indulged one night…
After Oohing and aahing over the room, we went and had some drinks at the New York Bar and the headed out for our dinner at Yoroniku (I’ve also seen it spelled YoroiNiku or Yoroi Niku – the actual name is Japanese, so who knows). This restaurant had some staff that spoke English, but no true English menu. I went in to it wanting to get the set menu (which is what most people seemed to be getting) otherwise we would have had trouble ordering.
Here they bring raw meat out to your table, which has a grill in the middle of it. The waiter then briefly cooks the meat for you on the grill…and everything was excellent. We even tried heart here (which they made sure we wanted to try when ordering the set menu). The heart had a sort of octopus/squidlike chewy texture. Everything else was pretty mainstream cuts and tasted great.
I’d highly recommend Yoroniku to anyone who likes beef…Even if you are not all that adventurous.
And a brief sidebar on our taxi ride over…The driver was not exactly sure where the restaurant was. So, when we got to the area he thought it was, he stopped the meter and went out looking for it while we waited in his cab. About a minute later, he reappeared and personally escorted us to the restaurant, while leaving his cab running in the street. Of course, they don’t accept tips. This should give you an idea of both the safety and service of Japan.
To start the day, we ate breakfast in Girandole at the Park Hyatt. The buffet was very good, and the Cappuccinos may have been the best we’ll have all trip. My only complaint – no hashbrowns/potatoes. We tried not to stuff ourself, as we had a big lunch planned.
After breakfast, we caught the Park Hyatt Shuttle to Shinjuku Station and then caught a train to Ginza. Public transportation in Tokyo was not as cheap as Hong Kong (and maybe not as efficient), but it is still far cheaper and faster than taking cabs.
Ginza is a busy area with a lot of high end shopping. We walked down what seemed to be the main street in the area in the direction of Kanesaka. Along the way, we caught a very interestingly dressed girl.
Kanesaka is a famous sushi chef in Japan. He has one restaurant in Ginza that looked to seat roughly 12 people at the counter. We chose to have sushi for lunch because the lunch set menu is half the price of the dinner set menu – and it looked like you got 90% of the same stuff from my research.
The chef spoke decent English and recognized us when we walked in – “Ittmann?” – note: this was not just at Kanesaka. Almost everywhere we went they assumed (correctly) that we were the Americans who had made reservations through our hotel…I guess they don’t get that many tourists on a daily basis – especially in winter.
We did have a little trouble finding the entrance, since they did not have an English sign. However, we got it right on our first try after staring at the map for a couple minutes.
Lunch was great at Kanesaka. It was sushi like you cannot find in the US. Everything was extremely high quality and very fresh. And most of the meal was fish/seafood not even offered on US sushi menus.
Like several things in Japan, lunch at Kanesaka was one of our splurges. But it was definitely worth it – I don’t know the next time I’ll even have the opportunity to have sushi like that again.
After lunch, we walked back to Ginza station down the same street we had walked to Kanesaka on – only now it was closed to traffic and had people walking all over. I think this was something they do every Sunday.
From Ginza, we caught the subway to Shibuya. All we did there was get out and go see the giant famous street crossing…and it was huge. Pictures don’t really convey how many people were going in every different direction, but it was pretty crowded.
We hopped back on the train and made our way to Harajuku, which is a teenage hangout. The street here was also packed, much moreso than we were expecting. But, we ended up walking the street and saw some interesting stuff.
Right next to Harajuku is Soho (everyplace seems to have a Soho). This was an almost as crowded adult shopping area.
We then walked through Yoyogi park and saw the Meiji Shrine and snuck out the back exit to the Park Hyatt. Even the park was packed with people, though maybe it was more crowded than usual being a Sunday.
Back at the hotel, we took full advantage of the free drinks from 5 to 7 at the New York Bar, and we called it a night still full from breakfast and lunch.
We started off the day by having a lazy morning and ordering room service. They wheeled a big cart up to the room and brought us everything we wanted. It was very nice.
This day we were spending in the Asakusa and nearby Ryogoku areas, so we caught the train to Asakusa. Asakusa is old Tokyo and has yet another temple. There are also some neat little shopping alleys to walk down.
After tiring of shopping, we walked down the Sumida River to the Sumo stadium. We were lucky that one of the three sumo tournaments a year in Tokyo was happening while we were in Tokyo, as it is something I highly recommend doing if you have the shot.
Sumo is a very ritualized sport. The wrestlers of each class enter in a ceremony, led by the Yokozuna in the highest class at the end of the day. Then the wrestlers in each class wrestle in the inverse order of the highest ranking amongst the wrestlers(the Yokozuna going last). Each tournament lasts 15 days, and a champion is crowned at the end.
The sumo match itself is very short – few lasted longer than 10 seconds. But there is 4 minutes of build up leading to the actual wrestling. The wrestlers stomp their legs, hit themselves, get in stances and give ugly looks to each other, throw salt…basically do anything other than wrestle for four minutes. It was something to experience.
Once we were sumo’ed out, we caught the train back to the hotel. For dinner we both felt like just eating a cheeseburger, so we ordered room service for the second time – but this time we had to foot the bill. It really wasn’t that expensive (far cheaper than going out), and it really hit the spot. We love trying new things and eating at fancy restaurants, but sometimes you just want a burger.
We got up at 2:00 a.m. on what seemed more like day 3b than day 4. This wasn’t just a bad case of insomnia, but we had to meet our tour guide at 3:00 a.m. a 30 minute taxi ride away (public transportation is unavailable in the middle of the night).
Meeting at the designated spot, we found Mr. Naoto Nakamura, our tour guide for the day. He then showed us all around the Tsukiji Fish Market – the worlds biggest fish market. We saw frozen tuna being unloaded from trucks and being lined up for auction. The fresh tuna were already laid out, with the most valuable fish on row 1.
There is also just about every other type of seafood imaginable being sold at the market, literally…Even whale meat, which Naoto explained they used to serve in schools because it was cheap so some of the older Japanese people still have a taste for it. There were also huge sections of live fish in tanks.
Doing this tour was one of the things I seriously debated because it was pretty expensive (between the taxi and tour guide), it was ridiculously early, and I knew it would be pretty cold at that time of the morning in January. But in the end, I was glad we did it. We saw many things we never would have even considered seeing had we done it on our own or went later in the morning when all the real business is done.
We also did not catch a tuna auction because to see that you have to line up around 4:00 a.m. in a designated spot, wait around a couple hours for the auction, then watch the auction for a couple minutes. I’m sure it would be really cool to see, but it seemed like a lot of work for a couple minutes of auction. Plus, we couldn’t have done the tour.
After about 2.5 hours, we said goodbye to Naoto and caught the train back to hotel (since public transportation had started). We took a 3 hour nap and woke up feeling like it was a whole other day.
Not having much planned for the day, we ate breakfast in Girandole again. After breakfast we spent some time catching up on e-mail, bills, trip logistics, and blogging.
With a couple hours to kill, we decided to go check out the hotel pool and fitness center. It was very nice – in fact I think it costs most guests almost $60 to use each time (which is pretty ridiculous IMO).
Despite the guilty feeling for choosing to swim over working out, we went swimming in the pool. It was a nice preview for the warm weather to come in Thailand. But this did not turn out to be a complete leisure swim, as Alyce challenged me to several races – all of which she won. After a little while, it was time to head back to the room to start packing and get ready for dinner/drinks.
We each put on our finest and headed up to the New York bar for our last shot at free drinks.
When it was time, we walked to the entrance to catch a cab to Takazawa. I have read many restaurant reviews in preparing for trips, and Takazawa (formerly Aronia de Takazawa) is probably the only one I could not find negative reviews on.
Takazawa seats 10 people a night, and Chef Takazawa works in front of you at his stand while his wife waits tables/does front of house duties. She spoke great English, as she lived in England for a period of time.
The meal was fabulous. Every course was inventive and had great presentation…but that will only get you so far. We’re still here to eat and that is my concern with some of the more inventive restaurants, i.e. the food does not match the presentation.
Well, that was certainly not a problem at Takazawa. Every course was delicious…really outstanding. Even dessert, where many fine dining establishments struggle.
The only downside of the night was the other diners, and it actually ended up being more entertaining than annoying. At one table, there were two business men entertaining a client. The client was a wealthy grandson (picture Joe Rogan) of the grandfather who started the business – I know this because he yelled it at one point. Other topics of conversation (all extremely loud for a restaurant of 10 people) included:
- “How much ya bench”
- The effectiveness of the military press
- Obama is great
- Obama sucks
- About 100 other things, all of which required loud F-bombs.
The hostess apologized after they left, but it really didn’t bother us much, especially because drowned out the conversation of the weirdo at the table next us. He showed up alone and sat there for himself for about 30 minutes waiting for his date.
He was American and turned out to be meeting a Japanese girl for their first date. This guy was weird, really weird. He was also really full of himself and clearly another wealthy son/grandson whose only accomplishment in life is that their elders passed. Anyway, his topics of conversation included:
- Many sexual topics, extremely inappropriate for a first date…make that any time.
- Slaughtering his pet cow for dinner with his bare hands to truly understand food and death.
- Teaching the girl all about “culture” and food. Alyce compared it to this guy thinking he was Henry Higgins and the girl was Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”
- At one point he admitted defeat – Takazawa was a better chef than him. BUT, only because he was a jack of all trades as he has travelled all over and knows about all cuisines…Boasting that if he concentrated on one cuisine he could be as good…nay, better than Takzawa (one of the best chefs in Tokyo, if not the world).
- All words have no meaning…neither does life.
- Being reincarnated as Kobe beef.
You get the point. This guy was weird. And I’m not one to listen in to other peoples’ conversations, but they were unavoidable in a room of 10 people when they speak loudly.
After cracking up about the wierdos on the ride home and gushing over dinner, we finished packing and called it a wrap on Japan.
We really loved Japan. The people are just our style. Neither Alyce nor myself are the type to go out of our way to start conversations, but I’d like to think we are both friendly people when approached. That is the Japanese. They are also extremely courteous and ordely…We loved it.
The food in Japan was also uniformly great…and we love food. More importantly, it was all uniquely Japan. Raw Kobe at Ichiban, Shabu Shabu at Yoroniku, top quality sushi, etc. It was all great, and it was all Japan.
Again (and this will probably be a common theme throughout), we barely scratched the surface of Japan. I think we did pretty good for Tokyo and Kyoto, but there is a ton more to do in Japan…mountains, lakes, WW2 sites…and lots more eating.
I definitely see us returning Japan in the future. I could even imagine us planning a trip strictly to Japan…which I’m not so sure I’d say the same for Hong Kong, which is probably a better transit spot to spend 4 or 5 days. To be fair though, I am comparing a huge country, with a tiny island and peninsula.
Overall, Japan get two thumbs up.