Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Twelve days in Japan - Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka

This winter, four of us - my brother, his wife, Prashanth and I - traveled to Japan for a two-week vacation. This was our second vacation together (the first was Germany in winter 2017). These two folks live in Sydney and naturally want to escape the December weather. And somehow, they've managed to sweet-talk me and Prashanth, both lovers of tropical weather, twice, into these super wintry holidays. We travel well together though - we're all an equal-ish mix of curiosity, laziness and affability.

If anyone tells you that a vacation to Japan is going to be unlike anything you’ve done before, believe them. We got back 8 weeks ago and we find ourselves constantly looking for Japanese food and culture in Bombay, like recovering junkies looking for the next fix. Short summary - yes it blew our minds, yes it was cold, no there were no cherry blossoms, yes the highlight of our trip was indeed the food, and yes we're dying to go again. In no particular order, here’s a list of things I loved in each city.

We stayed in two rather different neighborhoods over the 5 days that we were in Tokyo. Shinjuku north is the mad vibrant sort of place that I imagined all of Japan to be, so I’m glad we saw this before seeing other, slower but equally powerful places. The second neighbourhood we experienced was the Asakusa where we stayed at the Hotel Denchi. This is a quieter, residential sort of neighbourhood, with nice parks and shrines and museums. Here are my recommendations for Tokyo:

  • 9 hours Shinjuku north: If you’ve never stayed in a capsule hotel before, do yourself a favour and do it soon! Unless you're acutely claustrophobic, the space should not be concern: they’re not like MRI machines, which is how I imagined them – more like 5x the size of an MRI machine. I had three nights of amazing sleep in the capsule. There are a few minor inconveniences – you need to check in and out of your capsule every day, but they give you a roomy locker to keep all your stuff, and there are literally hundreds of coffee shops and restaurants next door.
  • The Onsen at Spa La Qua: We spent two afternoons (4 hours plus) here out of a 5-day trip. Need I say more?
  • Harajuku street: Very interesting neighborhood to walk around in – fantastic coffee, dozens of local designers to look at or buy from, stores with beautiful snacks and desserts, cafes where you can spend time with hedgehogs, cats or owls. We rolled our eyes at the weirdness of it all, then caved in an spent a lovely 30 minutes with some very sleepy hedgehogs. The famous Shibuya crossing is closeby, as is the Meiji shrine.
  • Meiji Shrine: High on all tourist lists, and with good reason.
  • Bar crawl with Alejandro (this is an airbnb experience) who took us on a very memorable walk around the izakayas on harmonica street.
  • Stationery stores: The city is a heaven for stationery lovers. We went to so many but Inkstand by Kakimori is perhaps my favourite. I've come back a person who now writes with fountain pens.
Top three food recommendations for Tokyo: Ramen at Zundo-ya in Shinjuku, Katsu curry at any of the CoCo Ichibanyas and burgers at Blacows.

Arriving in Kyoto after spending a few days in Tokyo feels like stepping back in time. It’s quieter, slower and has unbelievably picturesque streets that you can walk around in for hours, even in winter. I can understand how popular it is for cherry blossom enthusiasts – every street corner looks instagrammable. We stayed in Kyoto Inn Gion and I strongly recommend both the hotel and the neighborhood. If I live in this city for 10 years, I will not get tired of walking around. I recommend walking in the many interesting neighborhoods –Shirakawa, Pontocho, Nishiki market, Shijo dori  – over multiple days, at different times of the day,  because they look lovely in so many ways, especially the Shirakawa street. Shijo dori street has multiple dessert stores which have some truly exciting mochi-type sweet snacks which I recommend trying. We also participated in a tea ceremony which I enjoyed a lot. Another highlight of Kyoto was the music performance we watched at the Kyoto Muse. This city is famous for the breathtakingly beautiful shrines in the middle of massive gardens. The most popular ones are Fushimi Inari - made famous for the gazillion pictures of orange pillars on Instagram and Arashiyama - the one with the massive green bamboo trees, you’ve seen the pictures, you know what I’m talking about. We went to Fushimi Inari and I have to be honest, I did not enjoy it. The crowd was too overwhelming. But when we walked across the street from our hotel to the Yasaka shrine, which is not on any top 10 list, we experienced such perfect beauty and the silence that I will remember for a long time.

Top three food recommendations for Kyoto: Katsu curry at Kara-Kusa curry, Omurice at Fu-ka Ginkakuji, and Okominyaki absolutely anywhere.

They call it the foodies’ city, and they’re right. More than one person said to us that it’s impossible to have a disappointing meal in Osaka, so don’t bother to look at reviews. (I think this might be true for all of Japan. Apart from the one bento box I picked up at Osaka train station for the Osaka-Tokyo trip, every single meal in Japan is a lovely memory. Food just looks more beautiful and tastes more exciting in Japan). My recommendations for Osaka:
  • Morning meditation at the Osaka castle - Airbnb experience with Kuniatsu
  • Experience hidden Namba – Airbnb experience with Richard, an American ex-hotelier, who has lived in Japan for over 30 years, and just knows that he was a Japanese samurai in a past life. We rang the new year with this dude and a bunch of very, very friendly strangers
  • Onsen at Spa world – yes, onsen again. Onsens are definitely among my top 3 Japanese experiences.

Sunday, 23 December: Arrived in Tokyo
23 – 25 December to: Tokyo (2 days, 3 nights)
Wednesday, 26 December: Train to Kyoto (about 5 hours)
26-29 December: Kyoto (4 days, 4 nights)
Sunday 30 December: Train to Osaka (about 15 minutes)
30 December 2018 to 01 January 2019: Osaka (3 days, 3 nights)
Wednesday, 2 Jan 2019: Train to Tokyo
2-5 January: Tokyo again (3 days, 3 nights)
Saturday, 5 January: Flight back to Bombay

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