KEEPIN' IT REAL IN KYOTO

Of all the places we visited during our trip to Japan, Kyoto is the place that I recommend to do the most research up front. The major sites are very spread out, so you’ll want to plan your itinerary of what you want to see which days before you go. I also would recommend to book your dinners beforehand, as restaurants fill up quickly and have odd opening hours in many cases.

We stayed the first few nights at the Minato Hotel, which is about a 5 minute walk from the Nishiki Market. It’s a clean, airy modern hotel which I can heartedly recommend. This market is a pretty good first stop in Kyoto if you want to have a bite to eat, or get some interesting souvenirs, like super realistic sushi candy or skull sake!

Gion is the area where you may catch a glimpse of a geisha, and it is a stunning bit of old Kyoto. I would highly suggest not to go on a Saturday or Sunday, but try to use a weekday to walk around this area. It’s lovely to see but best without hoards of tourists! Also in Gion, be sure to see a tea ceremony demonstration! We went to this one which was such a relaxing experience, but get there early as it’s a bit difficult to find the location.

One place near Gion where you can escape the crowds is in Maruyama Park and the Yasaka Shrine. It’s a pretty extensive park with lots of pretty gardens to explore and many ladies walking around in kimonos! Also on a hot day it’s a great place to enjoy a sesame or green tea ice cream cone…

Quick tip- carry your own mini bottle of soap in Japan! Especially outside of Tokyo I noticed most public bathrooms have no soap, particularly around temples.

Oh and this tee shirt I’m wearing? It’s from a Polysics (absolutely insane Japanese heavy punk pop band) gig we watched at Kyoto Muse- definitely try to check out a live show at this super cool venue!

One place that needs to be seen in Kyoto is the Arashiyama Monkey Park. It’s an hour ride on the train to get there from central Kyoto, but really worth the trip. As you near the park, the city has a beautiful village feel with the Katsura River running through.

The monkey park itself is great- after a small 15 min hike up you can see the monkeys running around freely, and you can even pay to feed them! You also get a fantastic view of Kyoto from up here, and afterwards can visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, which sadly we missed.

On the way home from Arashiyama it’s easy to get to the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine; this is the place with thousands of orange torii gates (it’s this scene in Memoirs of a Geisha featuring these)! We arrived here around 5pm, which was perfect timing as the crowds had thinned out. The further you hike up the hill, the fewer people around you and the more magical it all feels. This was by far my favorite site in Kyoto!

There is also a small bamboo forest on the trail!

Try not to feel the need to see every site there on your first trip- there's just too much and it's easy to get burned out on temples. Also keep in mind, Kyoto is a great base for exploring other cities, like Nara & Osaka which are both only about 35 min away on the train!

MATSUMOTO & THE JAPANESE ALPS!

After Tokyo, we took the SUPER AZUSA train directly to Matsumoto, in the Japanese Alps. Matsumoto is a great city to explore this area from, and very well connected to get to outdoor adventures. The town itself is very charming with views of snow capped mountains surrounding the whole area, and worth some time to wander around get a more laid back vibe of Japanese life.

We stayed in a traditional Japanese style room (with a PRIVATE BATHROOM, I cannot recommend this enough) at the Matsumoto Hotel Kagetsu. I was quite pleased with our stay here, and would recommend the hotel based on the impeccable service and fantastic location in the cute city center.

The most important place to visit in the city is certainly Matsumoto Castle, the oldest existing castle in Japan! The grounds surrounding it are lovely to stroll through, but it’s also worthwhile to visit the inside and witness the breathtaking views of the city and mountains through the top floors.

It’s probably also worth mentioning that you can buy samurai Hello Kitty stickers in the gift shop here.

Another site for fans of art & polka dots is the Matsumoto City Museum of Art. Japanese artist Yayoi Kasuma was born in Matsumoto, and they have an impressive permanent collection of her work & installations here. Don’t forget to grab a polka dot branded Coke on your way out!

If you’re lucky, you might spot one of the polka dot busses in town… 

On a side note, did you know that eating RAW CHICKEN is a thing in Japan? Chicken sashimi! I was skeptical, but apparently the chickens are specially bred for this and it’s totally safe. We sampled it at Torishin, a crazy packed yakitori restaurant. Ask for the set menu and they will hook you up.

The main reason we wanted to visit this area was to get some hiking in, and from Matsumoto you can take a train/bus ride to Kamikochi National Park (it takes about an hour or so total). This is an epic area from which you can start many hikes- but note that some trails are not going to be open or advisable until high summer due to snow on the peaks. We hiked up to the hut at Dakesawa, which was a moderately strenuous hike for those not used to high altitudes. 

As soon as we started the hike we saw a WILD MONKEY on the trail! Amazeballs! We noticed many people wearing bells, which we thought were to ward off the monkeys on the trail. But as we were descending the mountain we spotted- get this- a BEAR charging up the hill parallel to us! Yes, there are black bears in this forest! So, just keep that in mind when walking…

A nice way to unwind back in Matsumoto after the bear & monkey sightings is a trip to the extremely chill Elbow Room bar. The owner does not speak much English, but beers are easy to come by, and the groovy Japanese lounge playlist is worth the visit alone. The owner even gave me a mix CD as I was leaving the bar after I commented that I loved the music!

One more quick note- the best meal on our whole trip to Japan was here. An extremely enthusiastic staff, adorable hand illustrated menus, and some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had in a way cool traditional shoes off Japanese setting. Just order lots of small plates to share like pickled fish guts and the kimchi & pork. Everything goes great with the spicy ginger beers!

I happily could have stayed a bit longer to have some more laid back time- the crisp clean air and friendly people make Matsumoto & the Alps quite a treat to visit.

Oh! And don't forget to grab a local bear beer at Matsumoto station before you leave!

JAPAN! TOKYO!

After years of putting it off, I finally had the chance to visit Japan last month. It always seemed too expensive, too far away, too difficult to plan, so the trip just kept getting bumped to another year. Now having been, I am kicking myself for waiting so long to visit- Japan is by far the most exciting place I have ever been, so I’m writing a few posts about the trip to share some tips on what we did, and what I would have done differently.

Planning the trip took me months, mostly because I was interested in seeing many parts of the country and wanted to prioritize the right places without making travel between the cities too difficult. In the end our itinerary was as follows:  Tokyo (7 nights), Matsumoto (3 nights), Kyoto (6 nights with day trips to Nara & Osaka) and finally Hakone (2 nights). To get everywhere by train, you’ll need to book a JR Pass online about a month or so before your trip. And don’t panic like I did about how to plan your train journeys- just download the Hyperdia app for your phone and everything becomes wayyyy more clear.

Every city we visited was fantastic in its own way, but Tokyo completely won me over, and I wish I could have stayed longer. Everything in this city is just so easy. Do not be intimidated to take the subway, it’s actually super intuitive and there are always station clerks around who can help you if you get turned around. I recommend to buy a Suica card when you’re at Narita Airport at one of the train ticket kiosks, you can use this card on all the subway lines in Tokyo, and it just makes getting around really simple. You can also load up this card to buy things at the convenience stores and some vending machines! 

Predictably, my favorite neighborhood that we visited was Harajuku. If shopping for insane plastic accessories fit for an 8 year old anime fanatic & eating tons of sugary snacks is your thing, this is the place to go! 

Also I did not realize how great the vintage shopping would be- I found a fantastic second hand kimono that needed to come home with me.

You must try out the wacky Purifun photo booths! You’ll find these in virtually any arcade around, and it’s your chance to become a silky skin kawaii dream girl/boy with saucer eyes. So much fun adding the little stickers and drawings to your photos as well!

Near Harajuku in Shibuya is the Kawaii Monster Cafe, which definitely warrants a visit. I enjoyed devouring the insane Colorful Poison Parfait while watching the gorgeous decora girls wander around the cafe! And if it’s your birthday, let them know- the performance that the staff gives is kooky as hell.

Tower Records in Shinjuku is a must see.  I visited 2 times because once was just not enough! So many crazy bands that you have never heard of and great album artwork. This gem is from a band called Ladybaby, which I can only describe as kawaii heavy metal. Instant classic.

A really unexpected highlight in Tokyo was the Hanayashiki theme park in Asakusa. The rides are all vintage, sun bleached wonders, and they even have an old school coin-fed Sailor Moon ride! The best part is that you can ride around the park on a giant mechanical panda- much more frightening than it looks!

For a cool Japanese hipster vibe check out the Shimokitazawa neighborhood.  A little out of the way but worth the cab ride. Lots of cool bars & shops- and a great place to check out some Japanese indie music live.  We saw a band called Mock Heroic at a club called Mosaic- such a sweet gig!

We also were lucky enough to see a sumo tournament one day. Neither my husband nor I are really into sports, but this was fascinating. I would recommend to watch this film before visiting a sumo match, so that you can better appreciate the sport!

On our last day we stopped by Tokyo Tower- I’m a little bummed we didn’t have time to go to the top as it is featured in so many of my favorite anime, but I guess I can save that for my next trip!

This hardly sums up the whole Tokyo experience, but hopefully some of these tips can get you started on planning your trip. Next time I would like to have breakfast at the Tsukiji fish market, and also go for a boat ride in Tokyo Bay. I’m sad to have missed out on the Hello Kitty theme park, Sanrio Puroland. Give yourself as many days as possible to explore this completely magical city!

Recommended reading:

Cool Japan Guide by Abby Denson

A Geek In Japan by Hector Garcia