Japan 2018 – a long overdue recap

img_9209I’m just going to completely ignore the fact that I haven’t posted in an entire year… BUT, I will say that a goal of mine this year is to post more often.

ANYWAY, my first post of 2019 will be about a trip I took in 2018– makes sense yep okay. Last March/April, we took a trip to what quickly became my favorite place I’ve ever been: Japan. We spent 2.5 weeks touring the country, splitting our time between the big, bustling cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. But we also took a number of day trips to the quieter ones– Hakone, Nara, Hiroshima, and Miyajima. Best of all, we were very lucky to catch the cherry blossoms blooming as we moved from city to city.img_9403Exploring Japan firsthand is such a unique experience. From the moment we stepped onto Japanese soil, there was an overwhelming sense that we were entering an entirely new world. The people are remarkably nice and polite, the architecture is so unlike anything I’ve seen in person before, the culture is such an interesting mix of ancient tradition and modern technology, and the food is so incredible that it makes me want to move there for the cuisine alone. We’re already itching to go back next year.

Relive my time there with me (see vid below)!!

Highlights

  1. It’s funny.. as I’m sitting here thinking through the highlights of the trip, we (Jake does this too) always seem to forget that we got engaged in Kyoto. But, that is definitely at the top! We also find it funny though that Kyoto was our least favorite city and we celebrated our engagement with a disappointing but very expensive dinner of shabu shabu. But it was such a special day and just goes to show that the only thing that matters is the company you keep.

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    The spot where we got engaged 🙂
  2. The food obviously. Matcha flavored everything, but most notably a fried matcha donut and amazing ice cream. Speaking of ice cream, let’s add sakura and sesame to the list of the best ice cream flavors there ever were. We also discovered our love for soba and lament the fact that Atlanta’s soba scene is quite lacking. Special shout outs to onigiri, coffee vending machines, quality but affordable sushi, unagi, 7/11s, and the abundance of ramen.
  3. Public transportation you can count on, seriously the trains are always on time :’) and clean streets with no homeless people (seriously, we didn’t see a single one). Also, bonus that as a small woman, I have literally never felt more safe at night than in Japan.
  4. As I mentioned briefly, we were fortunate enough to see the cherry blossoms bloom in virtually every city. I truly think it’s worthwhile seeing these beauties en masse in person. Aside from the flowers being objectively beautiful, there’s also something to their ephemeral nature. They’re in full bloom about one week after the first blossoms open, and the blossoms fall off one week after that.
  5. A deer bit me in Nara and it was awesome (now that I’m reflecting on it after the fact).

General Tips

  • $1 is about 100 yen
  • You’ll need to carry cash as most places don’t accept card. We took out money from ATMs (found in 7/11s or other convenience stores) every couple of days. Would definitely recommend bringing a debit card that refunds transaction fees.
  • Small amounts of money are in coin-form and you’ll want to carry this for small restaurants (especially those where you order from a machine), street vendors or buses/trams.
  • We had international data with T-Mobile and used it for directions. Google maps works really well and will tell you which train/tram/bus/etc to take. If you AirBnB, they often have pocket wifis that you can bring with you during the day which we also did when it was available.
  • If you AirBnB, be prepared to live in a very small space. This is what we did and it was manageable, but we were definitely ready for the giant open spaces of America after 2.5 weeks of close quarters.
  • Tokyo was my favorite place overall, Osaka seemed to just have bomb food everywhere, and Kyoto has a ton of shrines and was the most touristy. Loved our day trips to Hakone and Nara. Hiroshima is so, so beautiful but also made me feel quite somber as we visited historic sites.
Drooling over this Ichiran ramen

Food you must absolutely try

  • For taste…
    • Noodles of all kind – soba, udon, ramen
    • Onigiri – found in any convenience store (apparently there are picture instructions on how to eat this properly which we never realized)
    • Matcha, sesame, and sakura (if they have it) ice cream (also heard of a purple colored ice cream that I wanted to try but never saw)
    • Pork tonkatsu
    • Taiyaki
  • For experience
    • If there’s ever a time to try conveyor belt sushi, do it in Japan
    • Fluffy pancakes – it’s a thing here and they taste pretty good (custardy imo)
    • Okonomiyaki – popular savory pancakes from the Kansai or Hiroshima areas but tbh I didn’t like them that much
    • Takoyaki
    • Hot coffee from street vending machines– denoted by red labels as opposed to blue for the cold coffee (they come out hot!!!! and honestly they’re not half bad)
    • Shabu shabu, though honestly I found this dish to be bland and the mediocre sibling to Chinese hot pot (perhaps my tastes are not refined enough for this)
    • Go crazy and buy alllllll the snacks from the convenience stores! So fun to try
  • Specific spots
    • Osaka specific
      • 551 Horai for pork baos/buns because I literally still dream about these
      • Rikuro’s cheese cake
    • Tokyo specific
      • Umegaoka sushi no Midori – some of the most worthwhile sushi ever
      • Tsukiji Market – anything here but especially the daifuku (matcha, sesame, sakura flavors were my fave)
      • Harajuku has a ton of fun snacks made for Instagram, just walk along the street and you’ll see what I mean
    • Ichiran (it’s a chain) for the ramen
    • Kyoto: Gion Tsujiri for ice cream

Short list of things to do!

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Fushimi Inari-taisha
  • Train from Kyoto to Fushimi Inari-taisha for the iconic torii as a pit stop on the way to Nara for the deer
  • Virtual reality games at VR Zone in Shinjuku, Tokyo
  • Shinjuku National Garden
  • Arcades all around Tokyo
  • Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto
  • teamLab Borderless in Tokyo (didn’t know about this while we were there and I’m so sad about it)
  • Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
  • If you can wake up early AF for that authentic Tsukiji fish market auction experience, go for it– but we were not about it (also apparently the auction moved elsewhere recently so google this)

Transportation Tips

  • We waited for a flight deal before booking a trip and it ended up being $640 roundtrip per person. Definitely be on the lookout for a good deal.
  • Japan Rail Pass
    • If you plan visiting a number of cities via train (highly recommend), you should definitely look into getting the Japan Rail Pass. We always planned on buying a JR Pass and realized last minute that you need to buy the Exchange Order BEFORE going to Japan. In a panic, we ordered and had them overnighted to us just in time for our trip. Don’t forget to bring the Exchange Orders with you!!!!
    • We got the ordinary 14 days JR Pass for $434 each. Note that the days of usage are consecutive so plan accordingly.
    • The JR Pass Exchange Order needs to be activated in Japan at JR specific ticket offices, which can generally be found at any major train station or airport. Note that we did not activate our passes until we needed it to train from Toyko to Kyoto (which was 5 days into our 2.5 week trip). Doing so allowed us to maximize our 14 days of usage to accommodate our most travel intensive days i.e., going from major city to major city.
    • JR bullet trains are divided into reserved and non-reserved seating (either the first half or back half of the train). Reservations are free and can be done in advance or right before at JR ticket offices. If you know when you’ll be leaving a city, would recommend booking in advance because reserved seats tend to go pretty quickly. However, we didn’t book reservations most of the time and were always able to find seats in the non-reserved areas. The electronic signs on the platform generally tell you which cars are reserved/non-reserved. You can easily move between cars on the train though so no worries if you accidentally get onto the wrong car.
    • Be on the lookout that not all JR trains can be used by the JR Pass.
    • To use your JR Pass at a station, go to the turnstile next to the attendant and flash it at them and they should wave you through.
  • If you fly into Narita, the Narita Express takes you to/from the airport and requires seat reservations which are free with the JR Pass. Reserve at JR ticket office. Reservations can be done in advance (would recommend as soon as you know what time you’re leaving). Note: I think we bought our tickets from the airport to Tokyo because we hadn’t activated our passes yet. The pass did cover our tickets to the airport though at the end of our trip.
  • Local Tokyo/Kyoto/Osaka transit uses the IC/Suica card which you can get at any station. JR local trains also run in Tokyo so you can use those if you bring along your JR Pass.
  • Kyoto unlimited all day bus passes are 600yen and very worthwhile. Buy at 7/11 or Family Mart. Otherwise it’s 230yen per bus ride by coins or IC/Suica card.
  • Osaka we mostly walked or took the train
  • If you’re not public transportation savvy like me, remember there are often 2 directions  that the train/bus could be going (if you’re not leaving from the end of the line). Make sure you’re taking the one in the correct direction.
  • If you need help with directions, ask!! Japanese people are very friendly and they often have people standing in the subway stations to help direct.

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Daily Itinerary
The timeline of our trip went something like this:
Tokyo (4 nights) > quick day trip to Hakone > Kyoto (5 nights, quick day trip to Nara) > Hiroshima (1 night) > quick day trip to Miyajima > Osaka (2 nights) > Tokyo (4 nights)
Knowing what we do now, I think we would have stayed in Kyoto for 2-3 nights and spent more time in Osaka or other neighboring towns.

  • Day 1: Tokyo
    • Dinner at Genki Sushi (conveyer belt) 2000yen ($20) total – fun, would recommend
    • Shibuya Crossing – fun people watching, the Starbucks has a good view
  • Day 2: Tokyo
    • Tsukiji market – if you go at 8/9am there are no crowds, but if you go closer to noon, it gets packed
      • Daifuku ~300yen each – flavored paste wrapped in mochi with an optional strawberry on top and it is amazing! Would recommend matcha, sakura, and sesame flavors;
      • Fried mashed potatoes and pork
    • Le Cafe Doutor Ginza – matcha soy au lait 530yen, pretty tasty but Starbucks green tea lattes taste about the same and are more worth for money
    • Hamarikyu gardens 300yen per person (pp) – very beautiful and relaxing area!
    • Ichiran – tonkotsu ramen 890yen pp
      • famous ramen place that is hella good and open 24/7
      • EAT HERE MANY TIMES they’re all over Japan. There’s one in NYC and the prices are 2x as much.
      • eat here at off times to avoid lines (5pm virtually no wait, but at 6pm there’s a line up and out the door)
    • Cat Cafe Mocha – 350yen pp entrance fee and additional 200yen every 10 minutes (i.e., 750 pp for 20 min)
      • Interesting experience, but not worth more than 20 minutes
      • Cats only come to you if you buy treats for them
    • Theobroma – chocolate cake 615yen for small cake / 2400yen for larger cake
      • Was featured on a Buzzfeed Worth It video, honestly really good!
  • Day 3: Tokyo
    • Bills in Harajuku for Japanese hotcakes 1500yen – apparently Japanese American-like pancakes are a thing and this was pretty darn good, though it’s more custardy than pancake
    • Zakuzaku for eclair like pastries 250yen – this is fun and pretty yummy though we had to wait in line (this is in Harajuku and it is PACKED shoulder to shoulder here)
    • Meiji jingu shrine – free and a lovely walk
    • Fuunji Ramen – dipping noodles which are very rich.. hard to find and there’s usually a wait. it wasn’t my favorite but tons of people recommended this place.
    • Shinjuku National Garden – MUST COME HERE, fave spot, lots of green space to hang out, so beautiful when the cherry blossoms are in bloom
    • Coffee Elementary School (Buzzfeed worth it video) 400yen for CES blend (house) – pretty good but also pretty out of the way
      • Note about coffee: all coffee in Japan whether subpar or pretty good seem to be around 500yen unless you get the coffee from the vending machines which honestly i recommend trying (hot coffee is labeled with red and cold coffee is labeled with blue)
  • Day 4: Tokyo
    • Umegaoka sushi no Midori Shibuya stop – opens at 11, arrived at 10:50, machine gives you a number, sat down at 12, 4000yen total
      • this is a hot local spot that always has a line so would come here at like 10:30am to be part of the first wave of people to sit down
      • highly recommend, some of the best sushi especially for the cheap price
    • Sega Hitech Arcade – literally go to any arcade you see, there’s tons
    • Ueno Park
    • National Museum of Science and History 620yen pp – pretty cool museum if you’re in the area, but nothing to go out of your way for
    • Nakiryu for Michelin star ramen 1100yen each, arrived at 530pm, 9th and 10th in line, seats 10, opens at 6pm
      • very cheap Michelin star restaurant (there are TONS of Michelin star restaurants in Japan)
  • Day 5: Tokyo > Hakone > Kyoto
    • Activated the JR Passes at the JR ticket office in Shibuya station
    • JR bullet train to Odawara station
    • Hakone Shrine 1100yen pp, +1200yen (500 for carry on, 700 for checked) for suitcase storage at Odawara station
      • This is where the famous water torii is
      • Really liked this place but it’s sorta out of the way because you must take the local bus from Odawara. I’m happy we went though and would recommend! We stayed for a couple hours.
    • JR bullet train to Kyoto
  • Day 6: Kyoto
    • Arabica for 500yen coffee – pretty good
    • Hanamichi for okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) for ~800-1000yen
      • so i thought i would like okonomiyaki but ehhh they don’t get crispy 😦
    • Kiyomizu-dera temple
    • Gion Tsujiri matcha ice cream cone 470yen
      • THIS IS THE BEST ICE CREAM PLACE AROUND SRSLY I CAME HERE MULTIPLE TIMES
      • Matcha and Sakura flavors were bomb
    • Shabuzen – shabu shabu 90yen for 2 meat kinds not AYCE not particularly worth kinda bland
      • all shabu shabu is pretty mf expensive and not nearly as good as Chinese hot pot imo.. try if you must but not worth the money imo
      • it’s expensive bc the cuts of meat are supposedly amazing, but i couldn’t tell and they give you like 4 pieces of thin thin meat…
  • Day 7: Kyoto
    • Gion Tsujiri Sakura ice cream cone 470yen
    • Nishiki Market – ate random things for breakfast definitely interesting and fun
    • Arashiyama bamboo forest (230yen pp 50 min bus ride from nishiki market) – so pretty and fun
    • Monkey Forest 550yen pp – 20 min uphill, pretty difficult hike after a long day of walking tbh but it was pretty interesting and overall worthwhile (wear shoes you feel comfy doing a light stoney hike with)
  • Day 8: Nara Day Trip
    • Train to Fushimi Inari-taisha – arriving at 830am was the way to go bc able to avoid crowds; LOVED THIS PLACE
    • Train to Nara – 45min from Fushimi on the express (1hr on regional) and had to stand; 20 min walk from the station to the areas with deer, 150yen to feed the deer
      • highly recommend
      • also would try to feed the female deer or baby deer (the ones without horns) because the male deer are so mean and aggressive and one BIT ME!!!
    • McDonald’s honestly v similar to America so disappointing
  • Day 9: Kyoto
    • Philosophers path – so pretty, fave place in Kyoto, would go early to avoid crowds (we went at 10am and it wasn’t bad at all)
    • Sobanomi Yoshimura – amazing soba, my vegetable one was 1200yen, can watch them make the noodles, highly recommend
    • Sushi Shigetomi 3800yen for combo dinner, 1000yen for chef choice sushi, very worth best meal of Kyoto
  • Day 10: Kyoto > Hiroshima
    • Trained to Hiroshima
    • Took a tram – all 180yen
    • Hakata Ramen Tei (博多ラーメン亭) kimchi ramen 780yen and gyoza set (ramen, 6 dumplings, and rice bowl) 950yen – very yummy and filling for price and the old man is SO CUTE AND NICE
    • Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum 200yen – this was definitely worth it and also very sad
    • Hiroshima meipuru~pu sightseeing loop bus is free with JR pass
    • Boston Patisserie slices of cakes/desserts for 150-370yen, pretty darn good, liked the strawberry cake and the chocolate cake
  • Day 11: Hiroshima > Miyajima > Hiroshima > Osaka
    • Ferry boat to Miyajima, free with JR pass
    • Hakata Ramen Tei again
    • Shinkansen bullet train to Osaka (quite certain you cannot ride a Shinkansen train with the JR Pass and I think this is when we were told to get off the train at the next stop lol)
    • Osaka Unagi Gumi (look this up in Google maps: 大阪うなぎ組) for Unagi dinner set 6000yen, so freaking good, 2800 for a large amount of unagi over rice, definitely worth
    • Naruto-taiyakihonpo Sennichimae-Aiaibashi for street taiyaki and it was AMAZING fresh and crispy best I’ve ever had
    • Rikuro’s cheese cake – only in Osaka and best Japanese cheese cake around, 695yen for a whole cake (if you want a slice, apparently you have to sit down to eat in which case you also have to buy a drink for each person so if it’s 2 people it’s ~900yen for a slice of cake and 2 drinks…just buy the whole cake is my point); cake is so fluffy and light
  • Day 12: Osaka – this was a very rainy day so we didn’t do that much
    • 551 Horai for pork baos/buns, 2 for 340yen and they’re the best pork buns I’ve ever had
    • Osaka Aquarium (it was a rainy day) 2300yen pp, stayed for 2.5hr, nothing spectacular compared to the Georgia Aquarium, very crowded bc the displays are small, many screaming and pushy children, did get to see a capybara tho!! And had a very cool coral reef display. Would skip though if the weather is nice and do something else!
    • Ate at the mall next door at the udon place which has a very delicious pork cutlet rice bowl and everything was reasonably priced
  • Day 13: Osaka > Tokyo
    • 551 Horai
    • Train to Tokyo
    • Olu’Olu Cafe – Hawaiian vegan food very good, had the teriyaki tofu bowl for 1050yen and Jake had the spicy chicken burger for 950yen
  • Day 14: Tokyo
    • Umegaoka sushi no Midori 3000yen total
    • VR Zone Shinjuku 4400yen pp to enter and play 4 games (otherwise it’s 800 entry fee and 1200 per game)
      • very cool experience, would highly recommend
      • We did the Mario Kart, Hospital Horror, Skiing, and some shooting one. The skiing one was our favorite.
      • Lines can get pretty long waiting for some of these games, we somehow beat the traffic of people by going a little after lunch.
    • Maruchun pachinko place – hated it
      • there’s a ton of Pachinko places and people here looove it but not a fan it’s so loud and smokey and not a fan of gambling…but it was an experience
    • Isetan Shinjuku (shopping mall) to look at crazy expensive food on floor B1
      • not kidding like $100 mango and $20 strawberries and crazy stuff like this
      • was fun to look at
    • Soba place on 12F of Odakyu (shopping mall) attached to Shinjuku station – pretty good 700yen for soba
  • Day 15: Tokyo
    • Tsukiji fish market to get daifuku (6 for 1000yen)
    • Meguro sky garden – probably out of the way but we stayed at an AirBnB around here and it was nice
    • Ichiran ramen
    • Shibuya Mega (don Quixote) for souvenirs – there’s like 10 stories of Japanese goodies to buy
  • Day 16: Tokyo
    • Tonkatsu Suzuki in Tokyo station – amazing pork tonkatsu for about 1100yen
    • Gomaya Kuki for sesame ice cream 500yen 2 scoops so amazing especially the triple rich white and black
    • Ikejiri Gyoza (Michelin recognized with rating of Bib Gourmand) – dumplings!!! 5 pieces for 600-900yen, side dishes for 300-1200yen
  • Day 17: Tokyo > USA

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Congratulations if you somehow made it to the end of this post!! Appreciate you big time. Thanks so much for reading! If there’s one thing to take away from this post, it’s that Japan is amazing and I especially miss all the food especially this pouffy bun.

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With love,
Sallie

5 thoughts on “Japan 2018 – a long overdue recap

  1. I had a lot of fun reading about your experience in Japan Sallie! I’m glad you loved it!! I may be slightly biased but it’s also my favorite place hahah 🙂
    Next time I suggest also visiting the southern island of Kyushu as well as the northern regions for snowboarding/ice festivals!

    Liked by 1 person

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