Only 3.5 hours away from Guam, Japan was an ideal vacation destination, especially as we only had 7 days and didn't want to spend a large part of it on a plane. After three amazing weeks on the beautiful island, we hopped on a flight to Tokyo bright and early. From Narita airport we took the bullet train to Shinagawa station in Tokyo to meet my parents and my brother. Now I have not been on a family vacation in YEARS. Between studying for MCATs or boards, I have unfortunately missed out on the last few international trips. So imagine how excited I was to travel with my family again. Worst part? My sister was now in the same boat I was in and could not join us, even though Japan was always "her thing," and probably one of the top items on her bucket list. Vicky, we missed you dearly on this trip but don't worry, we'll be back there again some day.
Day 1: Kyoto
Upon getting off the Narita Express at Shinagawa station, we got a text from my mom to go up the escalators and meet at the top near the entrance to gate 15. Sounds easy enough right? Oh but were we wrong! Apparently there are approximately 4 different entrances to gate 15, and we were definitely not at the right one. Most of the signs being in Japanese didn't help our case. But thank goodness for T-mobile's free roaming text and data; after a good 10-15 minutes of searching we found each other. Onwards to Kyoto it was from there. 3.5 hours on the Shinkensen bullet train to Kyoto made for a nice nap.
Then 2 subways and a 10 minute walk later, we made it and checked into our hotel: Ishicho Hotel, where we stayed in a traditional Japanese room with futons on the floor instead of beds and floor seats where you sit cross-legged rather than western style chairs. It was definitely an interesting experience!
The first evening in Kyoto we explored Kyoto's Imperial Palace and started our week long search for bloomed cherry blossoms. It was supposed to be warmer this year and the blossoms were predicted to bloom early, aka be in full bloom by the time we got there. Unfortunately, Japan experienced an unexpected cold front, meaning very few bloomed trees. We did get to see a few trees that were just starting to flower. The sun was already setting by the time we were out so our pics got a little grainy.
For dinner, we went to a nearby curry restaurant: Kare Seisakusho Kariru. It was a tiny little place that seats only 8 at a bar. Since there were 5 of us, we had to wait 30 minutes in the freezing cold to get in. But it was so incredibly worth it.
This was by far the best Japanese curry I had ever had. With our first step into the restaurant, we were instantly hit by the the aroma of savory sweet spices that filled my nose and had me salivating for whatever the chef was cooking behind that bar.
With spice jars lining the walls and plates sitting on open shelving behind the chef, the place was definitely cramped, but at the same time felt so inviting and so homey.
They didn't speak much English there and our Japanese via google translate wasn't very good. In the end we looked at pictures and could decipher 3 options: chicken, beef, or "special." What amazed me about this place was they did not have a large pot of curry cooking in the back. The chef literally made each plate to order. The chicken curry I had was savory and spicy to the point where it makes you sweat, but really hit home. The special curry had vegetables, shrimp, and pork and was a sweeter take on traditional Japanese curry but oh so delicious. This place had me seriously dreaming about their curry for the rest of our trip and even sometimes now.
Day 2: Kyoto
The next day we got up bright and early and headed to Arashiyama to see the Bamboo Forrest. We passed through the Tenryu-ji temple and garden to get to the forest.
The trees were so impressive and the atmosphere so serene that it could easily have been one of my favorite places in Japan. So slender yet so tall, the bamboo trees seemed to almost bend in the wind. It reminded me of scenes from old Chinese martial arts movies my grandpa used to watch where the protagonist would essentially fly through the forest bouncing off the bamboo trees all the while fighting the bad guy with bamboo sticks or swords in hopes of saving the princess.
Next we headed to Inari Shrine and Torii Tunnel, famous for the thousands of red Torii gateways leading all the way up Inari mountain like a tunnel. There were quite a few tourists there by the time we got there, but we probably stood in the same spot for a good 30 minutes to get a shot without visitors in it.
We didn't make it all the way up the mountain though as the rumbling in our stomachs brought us back down. There were food stands at the bottom where I tried my first matcha and sakura ice cream since visiting Japan. It wasn't overbearingly sweet and was the perfect combination of rich and icy. We also tried teriyaki dango (good, but a little too much dough for my taste), and mussel wrapped scallops.
After a bit of googling I found a site called Picrumb, a local restaurant guide in Japan that shows step by step pictures of how to get to delicious restaurants in the nearby areas. It brought us to a local ramen restaurant, Chukya Soba Umiya Ramen. The noodles were al dente, perfectly chewy, and really absorbed the wonderful flavors of the broth it was served in. We tried the spicy tantanmen, the tonkatsu, and the shoyu which were all mouthwateringly delicious.
After lunch we headed back to our hotel and rented bikes to check out Kyoto on wheels. Our first stop was Nishiki market, just over a mile away from our hotel. Looking back it was probably not the best first stop as there is no way to walk through the market with your bike and there was almost no bike parking to be found. Eventually after half an hour of aimless searching we stopped by a bike shop and were directed to a nearby bike parking lot just a few blocks away.
Nishiki Market is a narrow shopping street that spans just about 5 blocks, lined with small shops and restaurants. It was jam packed when we went and felt like a sensory over load. There were so many little stores with vendors selling gifts and souvenirs to grilling fish and cakes to giving out samples of crackers and pickles. We stayed for about an hour before heading back to return our bikes.
For dinner we went to Chao Chao Gyoza and ate our weight in those pan fried dumplings. We literally tried almost every item on their menu and each one was so good that it kept leading us back to the menu to order another one. We even had chocolate gyoza with ice cream for dessert. The atmosphere was kind of like that of a small European pub. The cooks and bartenders were full of energy, shouting out orders and cheering with us when we drank. Located on Kiyamachi street, the biggest nightlife area in Kyoto, it was easy to get to and would be the prime location to bar hop if you wanted to. The street was flanked on one side by a river with overhanging branches of sadly unbloomed cherry blossom trees. I can imagine how gorgeous that would have looked a few weeks later.
|Original Chao Chao gyoza|
Day 3: Kyoto and Osaka
Our last morning in Kyoto we made the hike up an old street lined with little gift shops with beautiful traditional architecture to get to Kiyomizu-Dera temple.
This temple has very interesting architecture as it sits on top of many intersecting wooden crossbars that are somehow sturdy enough to hold up the whole structure.
Next we walked through the streets of Gion and went to Kodai-ji temple. We spotted a few Maiko along the way
On our way back to the bus stop, we made a stop at Ryozen Kannon, a memorial for unknown soldiers of WWII to see their great statue of a bodhisattva and beautiful cherry blossoms as well.
From there we went to the Golden Pavilion to see Kinkakuji temple. Looking at pictures, I always thought it was painted yellow, but up close I realized the temple really is golden. The top half of the building is covered in gold leaf.
After lunch at a nearby soba shop, we hopped on the bullet train to Osaka (about a 1 hour ride). Now a few words of advice, if you are planning on going to Japan, travel light! That's probably the best advice I can give you. It is very difficult to navigate the subway system in Japan with large full size suit cases. As we spent 3 weeks in Guam and went straight to Japan from there, we had packed enough to last us the month: work clothes, beach wear, and winter wear for Japan. During rush hour, the trains and subways in Japan are packed to the brim with locals going to and from work, which means it is impossible to get your luggage onto the train without getting hurt.
Since we got to Osaka around 6pm, we decided it would be wiser to take a cab to our place for the night: Weekly Uehonamachi. Our poor cab driver was an elderly gentleman who had no idea where this hotel was, and still used paper maps rather than a GPS so it took him a while to figure out where to go even though we had the address. It was less than 3 miles away from the train station but cost us $30 in cab fare because of this, sadly.
After settling in at the hotel, we walked to Dotonbori, the large downtown area of Osaka. Initially when planning our trip, we were not planning to go to Osaka but when I found out that it is a food lover's paradise who's motto is "eat until you drop," I knew we would have to cut one of our other destinations short by a day to make room for a night in Osaka. I am so incredibly glad we did because the street food was nothing short of amazing.
We tried everything we could get our hands on: takoyaki (squid pancake balls), yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), yaki soba (stir fried noodles), okonamiyaki (savory pancakes), and fried chicken dipped in fish sauce.
Day 4: Osaka and Tokyo
Our itinerary had included going to Nara to see the deer park and great Buddha statue before heading to Tokyo, but we were all exhausted. My family had been traveling for 4 days prior to us getting there so as tired as we were, they were feeling it a lot more. So we decided to skip Nara and stay in Osaka for the morning. We went to Osaka Castle and had even more street food there -- it was seriously endless, street food was everywhere.
We tried to go to the Osaka Mint to see cherry blossoms but unfortunately none were in bloom yet. We did get to see some bright pink ones at a high school on the way back.
While at the train station heading back to Tokyo, we tried croissant Taiyaki (fish shaped pastries) hot off the iron. While the classic taiyaki is more cake like in texture and is filled with red beans, the one we tried was a flaky croissant pastry filled with cream.
Back on the bullet train we went, Tokyo bound. Join us on our Tokyo and Nagano adventures!