Following months and months of extreme over-excitement (it was really starting to get a bit out of hand), I finally hopped on a plane and made it all the way to Japan!
Our first stop was Tokyo, labelled by many as the most liveable city in the world. I don’t think I could agree with that statement any more than I do: it’s a place filled to the brim with limitless fun, craziness, things to do, things to see, things to eat…
This was me on our first morning in Tokyo. As you can see, I’m bundled up/dying from the cold, as we had just come from New Zealand summer. (Note: I had no idea what was to come when we finally made it to Kyoto and it was actually snowing. It was like, 12 degrees Celsius in this picture. I was so naive.) I became super reliant on hot vending machine coffees, heated toilet seats, wearing 300 layers, you know the drill!
We stayed near Akihabara/Asakusabashi which was a great location for us. The Akihabara train station is a JR station, and we both had JR passes (JR is one of the big railway companies who own several lines in the country), so we could get around for “free” using these trains. You basically buy the JR pass in your own country, get it activated at a JR station in Japan, then flash it to the station master every time you want to catch a train. Pretty easy. They can be quite pricey, but if you’re going between cities, (which, by the way, you definitely should do, more on that later…) you end up saving a tonne of cash.
Tsukiji fish market is a MUST-DO in Tokyo! This was SUCH a highlight. It is super busy (therefore great for people watching, picture taking, experiencing Japan, etc), and an ideal way to spend your first day in Japan. There is just SO MUCH to see! When you get hungry, pop in to one of the amazing restaurants/sushi places for the best sushi you might have ever had in your life. Also, they’re moving it to a new location this year, so I highly recommend you put it on your list if you’re lucky enough to make your way to Tokyo in 2018. And if you’re lucky like we were, you might even be able to catch a glimpse of one of these huge beast-like tunas being filleted! There is also the tuna auction if you are brave enough to wake up at like, 3am, to line up for a few hours.
We also saw whale for sale…!!
I also recommend Shinbashi (also known as Shimbashi) for dinner, drinks and nightlife. Nightlife in Japan is amazing. The Japanese are perhaps the friendliest people in the world, so don’t be surprised if you make, like, 10 new friends every night, who insist on taking selfies with you (we did).
In Shinbashi we had our first taste of tsukemen, which is basically ramen, but instead of the noodles served in soup, you dip them in the soup yourself. Oh, and – slurping is compulsory. Ours came with a side of karaage (Japanese fried chicken, which is unbelievable, honestly), and gyoza (fried dumplings which are, in fact, also unbelievable). I also became quite partial to highballs (whiskey with soda!)
Here’s another highball, guava flavoured! This was at a pretty cool bar in Shinbashi, called Snapper & Grouper. I think they were Mexican-themed.
We also had some amazing nigiri sushi (rice with wasabi paste on top, then topped with raw fish). The tuna is always so good, and it just melts in your mouth! You are served pickled ginger with sushi- eat one piece of ginger between each piece of sushi to “cleanse” your palate!
Shopping in Tokyo is unreal. I highly recommend Harajuku, Ginza, & Shinjuku for shopping. The Zara shops in Tokyo are usually about 6 floors, and there’s a 12-floor UniQLO store in Ginza (insane!). My top tip: make sure you make space in your suitcase for all the cute stuff you’ll bring home with you!
On the 2nd January, we hopped on a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. Bring the necessities: a bento box (lunch box) from one of the shops inside the Shinkansen area in the train station, a highball, and matcha kit-kats! The Shinkansen can be a couple of hours, but it is very spacious, warm, and comfortable (much more so than a plane), and they’re also very safe. We also got incredible views of Mt Fuji on the Shinkansen, which almost made our whole Japan trip itself! If you reserve your ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Shinkansen, try to get your seat on the right hand side if you want to see this beautiful mountain!
Kyoto was a beautiful, cultural experience. It was packed with tourists, which was the only down-side, and I think we had one day there too long (we had a million things on our to-do list in Tokyo, yet started to run out a bit in Kyoto).
However, I highly recommend Ponto-cho, a very cool, atmospheric alley packed with restaurants and bars. We tried our very first Kaiseki-style dinner in Ponto-cho, which was amazing! Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course meal, usually about eleven courses. This was one of the Kaiseki courses. As you can see, everything is presented thoughtfully and beautifully in its own unique container, with much thought given to seasonal ingredients.
Highlights in Kyoto: Fushimi-Inari Shrine (I also highly recommend you try inari sushi in Inari!!, see pic below), Gion for the beautiful old-style streets and Hokanji Temple, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Nishiki Markets.
Our next stop was Osaka, which was a huge change from both Kyoto and Tokyo! That’s the thing about Japan – everywhere you go is just different. The people are quite a lot different, and the streets are a bit more gritty. That said, it still depends where you go- where we stayed in Osaka was very upmarket, clean, and trendy, nonetheless a ten minute walk from Americamura, which was the opposite! I always felt very safe in Japan, but in Osaka I felt a bit more safety-conscious.
Highlights in Osaka: Dotonbori for restaurants and nightlife, GyozaOH! (an awesome gyoza restaurant with a very lively chef and staff, see pic below), amazing takoyaki (octopus dumplings) and okonomyaki (savoury pancake which blew our minds!!)
With our rail passes, we were also able to make a day trip to Hiroshima. I highly recommend this to everyone – go to the Hiroshima Peace Park and museum, and see the atomic bomb dome. Although heartbreaking, it gives such an important message.
And just like that, our 17 days was nearly over! We stayed one last night in Tokyo, upon which I could confirm that Tokyo was my favourite city I have ever been to.
This photo was taken in Kabukicho, in Shinjuku. Kabukicho is the ultimate sensory overload, being Tokyo’s red light district.
Japan is an incredible place, where I felt very much at home. Everything is an experience, and everything felt so easy. (You can even order your meals from vending machines at restaurants, see pic below!) The hardest part of the trip, I would have to say, was choosing where to eat every night! (That or trying to say my Japanese phrases in such a way that Japanese people might actually understand them – NZ accents are so difficult!!)
Thanks for stealing my heart Japan, it won’t be long before I’m back.