Tokyo and Kyoto
Some Special Thanks to Jason and Miki for their great advice and tips… it made our trip even more special. It should always be a rule when traveling for the first time to a foreign country: Ask people who live or lived there for advice.
Let’s get started!
Some cultural background
One thing you will notice quickly: the toilets are “different” than in Europe or in the US… some have heated seats, some have special buttons (I can’t tell you more you have to try for yourself … kind of like the three shells in Demolition Man :))
Another thing is that the business cards, credit cards, etc. will be given to you with two hands… reciprocate if you can and think about it.
One more thing that I forgot many times: the taxi doors open and close automatically so do not try to close them by yourself!
Some sake remarks
I now love Sake… you can have it hot or cold (my preference is for cold sake because you feel the flavors more — in my opinion — but it is all a matter of personal taste). For some background on sake you can check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sake. For sake lovers, our friend, and sake expert, Jason, recommended a place in Tokyo called the Meishu Center in Hamamatsucho. Sadly, we did not have time to see the place but it is supposed to be “THE” sake tasting place to try real sake (called Nihonshu… sake refers to alcohol in general in Japan). You should be able to get the daigin/yo set for about 1,000 yen (you almost have nothing for that price in Japan what a deal!) and you can try 3 different types of Nihonshu for that price. Here is the link: http://www.bento.com/rev/2028.html. At the airport, I bought a sake bottle called Nobu which is pretty good. One thing to keep in mind too is that sake (I mean Nihonshu), like wine, must be drunk quickly or it will loose its taste.
Some culinary remarks
You will have a blast with the food… but let’s just say that some days you will venture to a Japanese restaurant with absolutely no idea what is on the menu …. and THAT’S OK… we actually got very courageous in Tokyo and got in what looked like a typical Japanese restaurant… well so typical nobody spoke English (or French as I could tell or Arabic or Spanish or anything that we could talk)… so we were left with our hands… and it worked out perfectly. The waitress brought us fish to our table and we picked up what we wanted… we got exactly the piece of fish we had chosen, with soup, light salad and tea and it was one of the most delicious and simple meal we had.
One thing you may want to try are the FANTASTIC Okonomiyaki. They are some sorts of big cabbage pancakes cooked on a grill in front of you. You can have them with vegetables, shrimps, pork, etc…. i.e., whatever you feel like having on a cabbage pancake topped with a sour glazed sauce and mayo. We were lucky to have a friend to show us around for this one but your concierge can surely help you locate a restaurant having Okonomiyaki. One of my favorites because it is so different from what we know.
Another specialty you should not miss: Yakitori (you know the chicken on skewers). We went to a restaurant called Imaiya (Tokyo has several of them around the city)…. We were the only foreigners and it was a real culinary and cultural experience. Check it out:http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fg20070119rs.html.
If you are a tea time fan (like me) and absolutely adore British tea time with savory tiny sandwiches, scones and jelly, try the Park Hyatt in Shinkuju. First the view is amazing, second if you really like it you can come back for drinks at the Peak Bar or the New York Bar. Remember the movie Lost in Translation… well it is there. And Jason was right it is not touristy at all, we were very few foreigners there:http://tokyo.park.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/entertainment/index.jsp
Other specialties you should try: (i) Teppanyaki (seared meats and the famous kobe beef), (ii)Ramen (one recommendation from Jason where you should go VERY hungry: Ramen Jiro (ask your concierge how to get you here): http://www.ramentokyo.com/2007/06/ramen-jiro.html. Here are some other places as well: http://www.ramentokyo.com/search/label/Meguro-ku, (iii) Unagi (grilled eel): http://www.sunnypages.jp/search/japanese_restaurants/eel; and (iv) Tempura.
And of course, you should eat SUSHI… my favorite! If you feel like waking up early, go to the famous fish market: TSUKIJI. Just be aware that you have to be there no later than 7 am to see the action. If you are feeling lazy and can’t make it that early, well, … never mind still go! You will walk around food items (not sure what else to call them) you have never seen before…. really! It is crowded, alive and fascinating… JUST GO:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsukiji_fish_market
On the last night we treated ourselves to a special place (and hard to find, even the cab driver was lost with a Japanese map)… it is called Citabria, a French/Asian fusion place that will sparkle your palates. Again all the credits to Jason and Miki for recommending this place. If you are up for a treat check this out: http://www.citabria.co.jp/index2.html.
Let’s get ready to play the tourists!
Part 1 — Amazingly clean and modern TOKYO.
Arriving there: Ok… Tokyo Narita Airport is 1:30-2 hours away from Tokyo, so let’s just say that taxi is not really an option unless you want to spend $300-400 right there… yes taxis are expensive (close to London rates I would say). You have the option of the train but no sightseeing. Instead, choose the Airport Limousine — it is easy, cheap, comfortable and REALLY organized. When I say organized, I mean it! When you walk out of the customs, you should have an Airport Limousine booth in front of you or not far. When we were there the sales representatives spoke perfect English, so we were able to get tickets and directions to the bus stop easily. On the bus stop, you should have the time of arrival of your bus, the names of the stops on the way… plus last and not least… you have employees to help you with your luggage, i.e. making sure that your luggage is tagged and ready for pick up and delivery at the right stop… so efficient and (I know I am repeating myself) ORGANIZED! We were lucky too that our hotel was on the buses’ route. When booking your hotel, you may want to check out the Airport Limousine website (http://www.limousinebus.co.jp/en/) to make sure your hotel is on their way… it will make your life easier. One thing to keep in mind when in the bus: the seats are tiny (I mean not the American size bus seats) and something I particularly loved: no cell phone or loud conversations allowed… shhhhhuuuuuttt… you are entering a quiet world 🙂 I must say that coming from Europe and living in the US, I get really annoyed by the noise level pretty much everywhere in the US and I was pleasantly surprised by people’s respect for their neighbors in Japan. The bus even has a recording telling you “do not use your cell phones because it annoys your neighbors”… LOVE IT!
On the first day in Tokyo, you may want to do one of the sightseeing tours. Well, let’s just say chances are you will be tired from your trip or jetlagged, so take it easy… you are on vacation after all. We tried the Hato Bus (the yellow buses, you will see them everywhere in Tokyo) and it was pretty efficient and a good way to start. Check their website:http://www.hatobus.com/en/index.html. You will probably check the Tokyo Tower on the way… kind of like the Eiffel Towel but red and higher (well just slightly!). You might also go to the area called Asakusa where you can find traditional Japanese stores and restaurants. Be careful with trying the dry fruits over there… it might not be what you expect! You might also go to the Imperial Palace. On a nice day you should check out the gardens and the bonzai collection at the Imperial Palace (called “Otemachi” for the cab drivers).
On the second day, and if you feel like walking, try Shibuya, a very busy and lively area… just walk and enjoy. Go to the Starbucks at the Shibuya Crossing near JR Shibuya station, go up to the second floor, grab a seat (and a drink!) and WATCH! You will see the people crossing the street outside coming from every direction.
Another area you absolutely have to go to: Harajuku & Omotesando: The shopping is amazing (try the back tiny curvy streets at Omotesando) and the people are so stylish. So many stores it is almost overwhelming. We actually liked this area so much we went on three occasions. If you are looking for Japanese toys, go to the Hello Kitty store in Ometesando (do you know the Totoros and the Monchicchis?.. no? well shame on you!). It is really one of the coolest area of Tokyo. In Ometesando you can also get pictures in a samourai and a geisha/maiko outfit. It is a lot of fun, for women especially who will enjoy a one hour and a half of make up (or should I call it painting?), dressing and pausing for the pictures. The place is called Studio Katsura for the “amateurs”: http://www.henshin-maiko.com/en_index.html.
If you like electronics (who does not!), go to Akihabara, the famous “Electric Town”. The entire area is dedicated to electronics stores… i.e., entire buildings on several blocks of electronics.You will find computers, computers and more computers, comics/mangas and… weird child pornography stuff… that was the creepy part of this area and it is not even hidden. So just be prepared to be shocked and disgusted with it. The Yodobashi store is worth just checking out to be quickly overwhelmed by consumerism and not wanting to buy anything.
Another area worth checking out is Ginza… but come with your credit cards handy! This is a very upscale area with beautiful stores (has the reputation of the Japan’s Champs-Elysees).Other areas we did not have time to see but may be worth a try: Shimokitazawa (for cool jazz and cafes), Shinjuku 2-chome (for the gay ambiance) and Odaiba (the manmade islands area outside of Tokyo). Also, if you have kids (or not!) well there is always Disneyland Tokyo!
There are also many places for nightlife, but honestly the jetlag was not in our favor, so good luck with that part! Our friend Jason had the following recommendations: ‘The Room’ in Shibuya (http://www.theroom.jp/), Yellow in Nishi-Azabu, Agave, or Arashi in Nishi-Azabuhttp://gmap.jp/shop-6492.html), or anywhere in the Daikanyama area.
One last thought: get some cash whenever you can and in advance. ATMs are not that easy to find, so use HSBCs, Citibanks and Japan Post Office ATMs.
Part 2 — Ancestral and Spiritual KYOTO.
All right — time for the bullet train (Shinkensen) experience. First, you will be amazed by the Tokyo train station… you don’t speak Japanese, well no problem, follow the signs for the Shinkensen, get your tickets and get to the platform… yes it is that easy! And to add to the convenience you have trains to Kyoto every 20 minutes or so. The Shinkensen is fast but I would say not as sexy as the French TGV… but it did take us to Kyoto in 2 hours and 20 minutes, was on time and efficient. On the way to Kyoto I was truly amazed by the density of the population pretty much everywhere. Arriving in Kyoto was also easy and the train station was very modern.
Once you are ready to start on your journey and discover the city you will realize quickly that not everything in Kyoto is located in one or two places. Most of the temples are spread all over the city. So be prepared to walk/cab a lot. A few temples I would recommend but you could spend days exploring others: the golden and the silver temples, the golden temple for the beauty and serenity of the temple, and the silver temple for the beauty of the japanese gardens… and the Kiyomizu temple which should not be missed, it is a majestic edifice… All temples are moving in different ways, it is truly a peaceful and meditative experience to walk around these ancient temples and exquisite gardens.
I would also recommend you “experience” the philosophical-path walk, a 2-hour walk along a lovely canal. We were lucky to be there during the Fall and enjoyed the beauty of the maple trees in full color. If you go in the Spring, you should enjoy the cherry blossoms trees.
My favorite area in Kyoto was the old gion district… but again be prepared to walk… a lot (and get a good map or you will get lost — well you might get lost anyway!)! The twisted roads and hidden treasures of the city are not that easy to find, you have to deserve them! At night, in the gion area, you may want to venture to the Geishas street… if you are patient and come after 7 pm chances are you will see real Geishas on the street (yes we saw two!).
For Japanese restaurants you may want to try the Pontocho Alley or simply walk there for the experience.
You also may want to check out the Nijo Castle and have the opportunity to see very unusual ornate interiors and have a better understanding of Shoguns lifestyle.
Overall, Tokyo and Kyoto were a perfect combination for a first trip to Japan.