We made it to Japan! After a 4 hour flight from London to Moscow, and then another 9 hour flight from Russia to Tokyo, we arrived groggy and jet lagged in what felt like an entirely different planet. But we were so happy to be there!
Although we don’t have pictures to show for it, finding our first guest house proved to be quite difficult when you’re in a world that doesn’t speak a word of English. From the airport, we lugged our backpacks (worn on both the front and the back of each of us) into the underground. After navigating through 3 different subway systems completely in foreign characters and walking for 20 minutes in the hot noon sun, we finally arrived in our new accommodations for the next few days.
After sleeping for what felt like eternity, we then set out in search for our first Japanese meal… Ramen! Ramen is a traditional Japanese soup, usually made with a Miso Pork broth and topped with delicious home-made thin noodles, soft boiled egg, pork and green onions. It is so hearty and the perfect comfort food after a long trip!
Paying for things also seemed to be a bit difficult to figure out… 😛
Then it was off to explore the incredible nightlife of Tokyo! The stories are real – Maid Cafes, Gun Shooting Bars, Cat Cafes and Sega Play Centers were everywhere. This city comes alive at night, as all the hard working business men get off work and look to blow off steam for a few hours before heading back to work in the early morning.
We took a wander down the famous Shinjouku Akhibara Electric Street, the mecca for all anime and gaming fanatics. 10 story buildings line the streets filled on every level with video games or anime paraphernalia to fill your heart’s desire. Many people will come straight from work or school and spend HOURS (or their entire week) in these shops, gaming the night away as a way to relax. We tried our hand at Mario Cart, but after a few rounds (which Teal beat him at ;p ) and lots of money spent, we realized the game was rigged and Teal had the better steering wheel ;).
Tokyo has such a unique blend of uber-modern along with ultra historical… which provided countless things to take in and experience that were completely foreign to us. One minute we would be walking past flashing video billboard screens talking in baby voices in Japanese, and then next minute we’d uncover ancient temples from the Edo period.
But the nightlife isn’t the only thing that Tokyo is known for… The next morning, we woke up to experience dining with the locals at the heart and source of Sushi Heaven – The Tsujiki Fish Market!
Every morning at 3-4am fisherman dock their boats and unload the freshest fish right out of the sea right into the hands of these skilled Sushi Chef Kitchens. It doesn’t get much fresher than this! The rest of the fish gets cleaned, boxed and shipped off to the rest of the restaurants around the city and beyond.
We got lucky and were able to snag a table for breakfast right at the counter of one of these incredible spots and had one of the most delicious sushi meals of our life.
Fresh off the boat (literally!) Ahi Tuna served with just a dash of wasabi and a drizzle of soy sauce underneath the rice. Simple, classy and melt-in-your-mouth amazing.
For the rest of our time in Tokyo we spent our time exploring as many of the quirky neighborhoods (there are over 20 different central wards!) soaking in as much as we could. As you can see the streets are crazy crowded with Japanese, so as two tall blondes we stuck out like a sore thumb.
Seriously, they sell shoes like this? Haha too bad they didn’t have my size…
And continued to soak up as much delicious food as we could 🙂
After spending 4 days in eclectic Tokyo, we headed north to escape the city atmosphere. We spent the next 3 days in the picturesque and historic town of Nikko to soak up some nature and views.
Nikko had been a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries and the Nikko National Park continues to offer scenic, mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, wild monkeys and hiking trails.
We spent most of our time (when it wasn’t raining) exploring the beautiful trails and hidden shrines immersed in the rich mossy green landscapes.
We stayed in a charming AirBnB authentic japanese home that complete with tatami mats to sleep on, minimal furniture, sliding rice doors and kimonos! Our host was an adorable sweet old Japanese lady who came to check on us regularly and bring us little treats.
Nikko is also home to the Togoshu Shrine – the burial grounds of Japan’s very first emperor. This shrine was impressive, and we took hours to explore all around the extensive grounds.
After spending a restorative few days in Nikko, we jumped on our first bullet train (Shinkansen) down to Hakone, the home of Mt. Fuji!
Getting to our next place was quite a trek coming from Nikko – 2 trains, a subway connector, and a cable car railway through the mountains before a LONG trek up the mountain to the top. But the views from our place made it worth it!
View from our room waking up the next morning:
Similar to most Japanese guest houses, this place also provided very simple accommodations – tatami mats for sleeping, a few blankets, and a hot water kettle.
Hakone is renowned for its Onsen, as well as the home of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s largest mountain / volcano. This means that there are tons of natural hot springs coming from the volcano that have been harnessed into natural bath houses. Local Japanese have been visiting Hakone for generations to soak in these healing natural waters, and our guesthouse happened to have it’s own personal onsen onsite. With the rainy weather, we spent most of our time soaking up the healing waters in this onsen.
During our time in Hakone, we also took a gondola ride up to the top of one of the neighboring peaks to try and catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. Because it is such a high mountain however, it is rarely ever seen. Although we didn’t get to see it, the views from the gondola were still fabulous!
The picture below would have been the view if it were a sunny day.
To wrap up our time in Japan, we spent our last 5 days in Kyoto, the ancient capital. Kyoto had the feel of modern and ancient Japan mixed together, similar to Tokyo. With a fantastic city life, you could also spot old buildings and streets where samurai and geisha’s once walked and lived. One of the most famous areas of Kyoto is the ancient bamboo forest and nature preserve – located in the center of the city where you can get lost in miles of old bamboo groves, and spot some geishas taking selfies.
Kyoto is built upon a series of rivers (like most cities), which made it perfect for a nice evening stroll along the banks to observe the wildlife.
We also had heard about the famous Iwatayama monkey park, where you could get up close and personal with japanese snow monkeys. After once again trying to navigate the japanese bus and subway lines with great difficulty, we arrive at the entrance gate to the park only 20 minutes before closing. We ask if we can still go see them and they smile and say, “yes but you have to pay full price and it takes 20 minutes to walk up the mountain, so it’s up to you!”. So, after the long trek just to arrive we decided to go for it, and ran the whole way up the mountain – exhausted but excited. It was well worth it!
This little baby was literally right next to us. So cute!
Another main attraction of Kyoto is the iconic area known as the “land of 10,000 shrines” or the Fushimi Inari temple. Fushimi Inari Taisha is Kyoto’s most important Shinto shrine and one of its most impressive attractions. Located in southern Kyoto, it is famed for its variety of torii shrine gates, with thousands of them winding their way up the sacred Mount Inari. Each of the famous torii shrine gates has been donated by an individual or a Japanese business in the hope of receiving good luck and fortune. The name of the donor is inscribed in black ink on the back of each gate.
Walking through this area was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Japan is such a special country, with so much unexplainable beauty.
Our other favorite memories in Kyoto involved… you guessed it… the food! Japan is a delightful exploration of the most unique abstract foods, including cold mint cream puffs, weird jelly snacks, and delicious whipped cream sandwiches (as you see below). I don’t know how they all stay so skinny.
On one of our last nights in Kyoto, we followed the recommendation of a friend and went exploring down some small alley streets to find the eclectic and small hole-in-the-wall best sake tasting spot in the city. After wandering for about an hour trying to find it, we climb up some back stairs only to find a sign in Japanese posted to the locked door. We were bummed thinking it was closed, but decided to come back in 10 mins (in case that’s what the sign was saying) and we were in luck! He’d just stepped away. We were so happy we stayed. We got to learn so much about how sake is made, and all the variety of regions that sake comes from. Such a great way to end our time in Japan.
Overall, we had a fantastic and memorable time in Japan – although it was extremely expensive – and yet only feel like we’ve scratched the surface of all that this country has to offer. We can’t wait to return again.
Now, on to Vietnam!