- My first vacation abroad since the pandemic and my trip to Seoul in 2019 . Also my first trip abroad with my new girlfriend Chi-Chi!
Full disclosure, this trip shares alot of similarities to my 2019 trip. I’m playing tour guide both times after all, so there are certain sites we have to visit. But I changed things up, I swear.
As most people have noticed, the last three years were, to put it bluntly, a shit show. A tiny pandemic swept across the planet and fucked things up for alot of people. For my part, I lost my job, my marriage (finally) ended, and generally everything went tits up. But hey I never got Covid, either through dumb luck or I was asymptomatic. And now I have a new (better) job and a pretty great girlfriend. My original travel plans for Taiwan pre-Covid also got shelved because of a few reasons. One, my first trip abroad in three years had to be Japan; that just goes without saying. And two, my parents have decided to ditch America and move back to Taiwan, so I’m waiting for them to move sometime this year before planning a trip.
Pre-flight and Day 1 – Tokyo
As a starting point to this post, it’s worth mentioning that I started planning the trip literally the same week they announced that Japan would be re-opening their borders. My girlfriend and I had been dating for a couple months by then, we’d taken a few short trips already (Boston and San Francisco), and a profound love for trips to Japan was more or less a necessity for this to work long-term (my requirement, not hers). Additional reasons to book a trip to Japan immediately were that one, the country would hopefully still be tourist-free. And two, I was also hoping hotel prices would be depressed for a while so we could get some nice deals. A third factor that messed with all that though was that while hotel prices were pretty low, prices for roundtrip tickets were ridiculously high. I would’ve had to use double miles if I booked with my mileage, so we decided to just book tickets we found at $2,000 that had layovers in Germany. Bonus fourth factor in all this however; the exchange rate with the Yen was at an all-time high. I don’t think I’ve ever exchanged this much US currency for Yen before. Yay!
The day before we were set to fly out though, I received an email saying that our flight was rebooked, and that instead of our flight being in the evening the next day, it was the following morning. I was a little pissed since that was time lost, but then I actually continued reading the email (it included the new flight information). We had been switched from Lufthansa to United, which I didn’t mind (I normally fly United anyway). They fly direct flights so I checked the flight and shit yes, it’s direct. So that made things up a bit in regards to lost time. The boarding group also stated Group 1 now (odd). I looked closer and it turned out that we were also upgraded to Business Class. Holy shit. If it wasn’t readily apparent, I’ve never flown anything but Economy my entire life. I went from mildly annoyed to everything’s super duper in a matter of minutes. We did get to Japan about 6 hours later than initially planned. But trading up to a direct flight and in Business Class, neither of us cared.
⇲ Polaris Lounge, Newark Airport
The next morning we putzed around the incredibly nice Polaris lounge (for business class flyers), then boarded the plane and slept (for real) the entirety of the flight when we weren’t busy playing with our adjustable seats or asking for champagne. I think it’s worth highlighting some of the overlooked but significant differences between Business Class and what I’ll now refer to as “Plebe” Class. Point one, when the bowl of nuts arrived, it was slightly toasted for us. Point two, no one fights for overhead space because half the compartments are empty. And point three, for the same reason there’s no wait for the bathroom because Business Class has their own dedicated ones. Fuck it’s so hard going back to Plebe Class.
After we landed, it took us a bit of time getting from Narita to Tokyo via NEX, but we were able to connect with Chi-Chi’s friends to grab a quick bite in the basement of Tokyo Station. We were originally planning to stay a bit longer, but when we went to book Shinkansen tickets, we were told that the last Hikari Shinkansen to Kyoto was 8ish (our Japan Rail Passes couldn’t be used for Nozomi), so we kind of inhaled our dinner and cut short their reunion. We said our goodbyes, then hopped on board the Shinkansen for a 3 hour ride to Kyoto. We went straight to our hotel, the Tokyu Stay Kyoto Sakaiza, then crashed for the night.
⇲ Tokyu Stay Kyoto Sakaiza
Day 2 – Kyoto
Thanks to our bougie Business Class seats, jetlag wasn’t as big of a hindrance as past trips. We got up bright and early and started our trip off with a good’ole Western breakfast at Hoshino Coffee on the south side of Kyoto Station (they were one of the only open restaurants in the station). In all fairness, their katsu sando was mighty tasty and their coffee got our morning started right. After breakfast, we hopped a short train ride to Tofukuji, an underrated temple that’s a short walk from the considerably more popular Fushimi Inari. Tofukuji’s been one of my favorite temples since my college trip to Japan back in 1999. Its Tsuten-kyo bridge that overlooks a valley of trees is particularly gorgeous in the fall.
We strolled over to Fushimi Inari afterwards, which while not as packed as the last time I was there in 2019, was definitely pretty active. Especially for Japan which had only opened its borders a month prior. The tourist loop of torii gates was and always will be crowded, so we made our way past it as fast as possible to start our ascent of Mt Inari. Maybe it’s the age talking, but going up Mt Inari sucks big dong. Was it always this unpleasant? Let me read my old post…hmm, no overt bitching. Age then…it’s the age.
⇲ Cocon Karasuma
After coming back down the mountain we took the train back to Kyoto Station, then had a nice unagi lunch (Chi-Chi hadn’t had proper unagi before) at this spot here in Isetan, then strolled around Kyoto Station because nostalgia. We headed back towards Shijo Kawaramachi and wandered the area a bit. We tucked into Cocon Karasuma to peruse the crafts and art stuff, then headed north to check out the new Kengo Kuma designed Ace Hotel in the incredibly cool ShinPuhKan complex. Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel to rest a bit. Did I mention that the hotel (which wasn’t even built the last time I visited) was right off the Shinkyogoku Shopping Street? That is an amazing location.
After a brief respite, we headed back out to roam the alleys of Pontocho. The initial intent was to find a bite and continuing on to drinks. But we didn’t really get much further than a hot pot dinner at Imozou Kyoto Kiyamachi before zoning out completely. We threw in the towel shortly after 10pm and headed back to the hotel.
⇲ Anchor, Gate Hotel
Day 3 – Kintsugi and Kyomizu-dera
By the third day, we were craving a nice breakfast somewhere. So we again searched high and low for any options around Shijo Kawaramachi. We landed on Anchor in the Gate Hotel a few minutes walk from our hotel. Not surprising that one of the only open spots would be in another hotel (our hotel unfortunately had no dining options). But their breakfast was actually amazing, not to mention the gorgeous views out to Kyoto from their dining room. They even had a fresh honeycomb to get honey from at their buffet spread.
We had booked a kintsugi class for the morning, so we headed into the residential area of Higashiyama to POJ Studio. Before the class started though, we strolled over to the nearby Toyokuni Shrine. The area was fairly out of the way and the grounds didn’t look as maintained as other shrines. But a little Google searching pointed out that this was a shrine for and the burial place of Toyotomi Hideyoshi?!? What the heck, pretty surprising for a (relatively) modest shrine.
We headed back to POJ Studio and started our private kintsugi lesson. Kintsugi is the art of fixing broken things using a type of natural resin. As we learned from the class, the gold you typically see used in kintsugi is mainly ornamental, as the resin is the only thing needed to fix said wares. We learned the history of kintsugi, then got to “fix” our own little cups (and keep them) using brushes, resin, then brass powder. Very cool.
The Higashiyama ward of Kyoto encompasses alot of interesting sites, the primary one of which is Kiyomizu-dera. It’s always been my favorite temple…checking my last trip: yes I said the same thing. I am consistent. The main hall of Kiyomizu-dera has been under restoration for a really long time. So to be honest this was the first time seeing the main hall and balcony since my 2011 trip, and it’s as gorgeous as I remember.
The shopping area around Kiyomizu-dera is full of fun shops and food stalls. So we headed down the shopping corridor towards the Sannenzaka street to peruse craft wares, snacks, had an udon lunch in what looked like someone’s living room, then continued north until we hit Yasaka Shrine, then made our way back towards Shinkyogoku for a rest back at our hotel. After a quick afternoon nap and alot of Royal Milk Tea, we headed back out in the evening to look for food. My notes say we got Italian food…oh right, we somehow landed on an Italian restaurant inside the Takashimaya. It had the oddest decor, but the food was decent. We continued on to Scotch & Branch for some evening sippies. That particular night had a competition winning bartender guest-bartending and serving some excellent variations on classics. After two…three (?) rounds, we retired back to our hotel.
Day 4 – Todai-ji and Lake Biwa
⇲ Asshole Deers, Nara
We booked a day trip to an onsen resort along Lake Biwa just outside Kyoto. But we first took a morning train to Nara so we could be harassed by deer, and also see Todai-ji. We revisited Hoshino Coffee before our train ride; I think that’s worth pointing out. I’ll also make it worthwhile informationally and let everyone know that the katsu sando morning breakfast was NOT available. Not that I can read Japanese, but we hypothesized that only the breakfast menu was available on weekdays for the daily commuters, and the full menu was available in the morning only on weekends.
Moving on though, Todai-ji was, as always, beautiful. Especially in places like Nara (or really anywhere not Kyoto or Tokyo), you could see the difference in regards to tourists. Everything was mellow and not at all crowded, which was nice. We pit-stopped in Kyoto Station on our train ride back and towards Lake Biwa. We (as in I) neglected to reserve dinner reservations at the resort, and I knew that it would be hard to find food otherwise around the resort. So we grabbed a quick udon lunch in the station, then loaded up on food before taking the train out to Lake Biwa. We got off at the Ogoto Onsen Station late in the afternoon and was immediately picked up by the hotel shuttle and taken to Biwako Ryokusuitei. You’re never sure if the Tripadvisor photos are legit or if the reviews were in any way accurate. But it should be said that the place was absolutely gorgeous. And disregarding the snafu where I forgot to book dinner reservations, I at least had made sure to book a room with a private open air bath. We settled into our room and immediately dipped into the hot spring water-filled bath and just stared out to the lake for the next hour or so. This was followed up by an unimpressive spread of station bentos, 7-11 onigiris, and endless Royal Milk Teas, then roaming the expansive resort grounds, then staring longingly out to the soaplands just to the south of the resort, then relaxation the rest of the night. We even woke up early the next day for an early morning soak to watch the sun rise over the lake, followed by an amazing breakfast spread that only gave us a hint of the kind of dinner we missed out on the night before. For anyone looking for destinations outside the main cities, I would definitely recommend a trip to a resort and/or onsen. And definitely Biwako Ryokusuitei (it’s 30 minutes from Kyoto!)
⇲ Biwako Ryokusuitei
Day 5 – Arashiyama
We arrived back in Kyoto and headed straight towards Arashiyama. Our original idea was to take the Sagano Romantic Train, but for whatever reason they weren’t running that particular day. I’m now zero for two in trying to take the damn Sagano train. So we instead walked the bamboo forest like the good tourists we are, wandered through the Arashiyama neighborhood, took a coffee break at the % Arabica Coffee Stand, then took the Randen tram over to Kinkakuji. We had a katsu lunch somewhere that I didn’t bother noting, then relaxed back at the hotel. We then wandered around the shopping arcade and side streets the rest of the evening, but my notes trailed off so it’s safe to assume we took it easy the rest of the night.
Day 6 – Tokyo!
I think we were both eager to start the Tokyo leg of our trip, so we caught a morning train from Kyoto Station to Shinagawa Station in Tokyo. Buh-bye Kyoto. We transferred to the Yamanote line towards Shibuya and dropped our luggage off at the Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu, which is still probably my favorite hotel to stay at in Japan.
Though it’s only been three years since my last trip, Shibuya had changed alot in that time. We headed straight towards Miyashita Park since it wasn’t quite finished the last time I was in Tokyo. The shops and layout were pretty impressive in my opinion, but the rooftop park was definitely the highlight. Too bad it was the first (and only) drab day during our entire trip. We decided to check out the rest of Shibuya another day since we were staying in the neighborhood anyway and headed out towards Roppongi after checking into our hotel. Mr. Google Maps told us to hop a bus in order to get to Roppongi, so believe it or not this was my first time ever riding a bus in Tokyo. It was a straight shot East and definitely easier to get to Roppongi by bus rather than JR or Metro.
We roamed the Roppongi Hills complex, snacked on bratwursts and glühwein at the Holiday Market, and admired the disco light Christmas trees. The first Christmas Illuminations of the day was going to start soon over at Tokyo Midtown, so we strolled over in time for Netflix to blast their lights and duh-dongs into our eye and ear holes. We roamed the garden grounds for a while after sunset before attempting to find a place to eat. Apparently Tokyo, like New York City, relies heavily on reservations now. At least it was that night at every spot in Tokyo Midtown. The only place we could get a seat at was The Counter, a western-style burger spot. They were fine and everything, it’s just that we didn’t have much of a choice; we were kind of eyeing the Italian spot. We headed back to Shibuya to rest a bit before heading out for drinks at DJ Bar Bridge, which I went to for the first time back in 2019. The views were still amazing, and the sound system and music still top notch. I wish I took more photos of the crowd that night. Definitely an eclectic mix of people. Everyone looked like a DJ or a fashionista.
⇲ Christmas Illuminations, Tokyo Midtown
Day 7 – Akihabara and Asakusa
Our second day in Tokyo started early as usual. That and we had one day left on our JR Passes, so we thought we’d try and get the most out of it. We took the JR to the Tokyo Forums to wander the area. I had talked up alot of the architecture and urban planning of Tokyo before our trip, so now I had to tour guide around the sites I wouldn’t shut up about for the last 2 months. We took a quick morning pitstop at Kitte for some coffee, then continued north towards Akihabara to get my weeb on. While we did hit up many of the usual spots like Radio Kaikan, Ami Ami, Super Potato, and Mandarake, I didn’t subject Chi-Chi too much to the rest of Akiba. Though with the exchange rate as it were, I probably should’ve looked a bit harder for purchases.
We continued on to Aki-Oka a bit north of Akiba to look at more crafts and artisan wares, took a small coffee break at Yanaka Coffee, then headed to Asakusa since we had already covered alot of site-seeing before lunch. Senso-ji and Nakamise-dori were seemingly back to pre-pandemic levels of tourism, so that was good to see. We were feeling pretty hungry by then, so we ducked into a small mom and pop udon shop in one of the shopping arcades (I can’t seem to find it on the map). After resting a bit back at the hotel, we headed out after dark to Shinjuku for yakitori somewhere in Kabuki-cho, then settled into a tucked away bar for whiskey and coke the rest of the night.
Day 8 – Teamlabs, Odaiba, and Christmas Eve
The morning of Christmas Eve, we had reserved tickets to teamlabs Planet in Odaiba. If I’m being honest, I think I like the original teamlabs Borderless experience more, as it was more freeform and non-sequential. Having to walk through water for certain rooms was pretty cool though. Plummeting energy levels by this point in the trip started sinking in, so we didn’t do much else on Odaiba. If I recall correctly we spent a bit of time in Ginza before resting back at the hotel. We did head out for an amazing curry dinner at Taberu Fukudaitoryo, followed by drinks and vinyl at Grandfather’s. But for the most part we took it easy.
Day 9 – Christmas Day, Omote-sando, and Ginza
We got our energy levels back up for Christmas day. But firstly it’s worth noting that at this point in the trip we were shooting more videos than pictures. Videos were just more fun; they’re like photos, but they move!
Christmas morning we made it a point to grab some morning coffee at the Starbucks overlooking Shibuya Scramble, because of course we had to. But the pastries weren’t really doing it for Chi-Chi, so we decided to fall back onto something more familiar, Hoshino’s! Unfortunately the quality of the coffee and food just wasn’t at the same level as their sister shop in Kyoto. Their supposed jiggly pancakes were definitely not jiggly. Ah well, that wasn’t going to ruin our Christmas. So we headed out towards Harajuku and Omote-sando to get our consumerism on. We came out of the new Harajuku Station and wandered through the With Harajuku complex. I’ve personally always liked how exploratory Tokyo’s newer shopping complexes were. Like Miyashita Park and Shibuya Stream, With Harajuku was a multi-level shopping complex with open stairs, vantage points, and multi-level circulation paths that take you up into the space. The new Parco Building we explored a few days later was likewise fun to navigate. But that’s for later; back in Harajuku we came down the rear circulation of With Harajuku right onto Takashita Dori. We headed towards Omote-sando and wandered through Ura-hara and Cat Street while occasionally peeking out onto Omote-sando proper packed with roving shoppers.
We had our requisite coffee pitstop at an Airstream coffee stand (formerly the Airstream Garden, but now unclear), then a fish & chips lunch at Shake & Chips. I mean, we can’t eat Japanese all the time, right? We were meeting my friend Taka and his girlfriend Shelly for dinner, so we headed back to Shibuya beforehand to change into our ugly Christmas sweaters. They were royally hideous and I immediately regretted it. We got to Ginza a bit early to continue wandering the area before dinner. With some time to spare, we even got a round of pre-dinner drinks on the rooftop of the Tokyu Plaza Ginza at a pop-up bar (?) in the Kiriko Terrace area called Takibi & BBQ. They had set up fire pits as it was outdoors, and it seemed that you could also bring your own food to cook over an open flame. There weren’t many people with us, but I thought it was a fun idea.
We met up with my friends afterwards at Sanada at Ginza Six for an amazing Japanese dinner. Unfortunately I don’t think they got the ugly Christmas sweater memo.
⇲ Sanada, Ginza Six
Day 10 – Yokohama
Time for a daytrip out of Tokyo. During the planning phase of this vacation, this was once Kusatsu, then Kamakura, then finally Yokohama. But before our side trip, we had fluffy pancake plans with another of Chi-Chi’s friends that happened to be in Tokyo. We were back in Harajuku early in the morning, so we took a stroll through Meiji Jingu before breakfast. It was nice and quiet walking through the tree-lined grounds. And unlike my last trip, we made sure to come out the right exit. We walked over to Micasadeco Cafe in Omotesando and were some of the first in line. The fluffy pancakes were definitely worlds better than the substitute ones we had at Hoshino’s. We still love you though, Hoshino’s.
After we split off, we caught the southbound train to Yokohama. We did the Yokohama circuit of the Yokohama Air Cabin, the Cup Noodles Museum (though we saw the crowds and decided against going in), to the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouses. The shops at the Red Brick Warehouses were actually pretty nice. For some reason I expected it to be a bit more touristy. We headed towards Yokohama Chinatown afterwards and wandered the crowded streets. We got a bite of Taiwanese Fried Chicken, took a coffee break at a hookah bar (I didn’t know it was a hookah bar), then started making our way back to the train station. It wasn’t until we were already on our way back to Tokyo did I realize I forgot the main reason Yokohama was even picked over the other destinations; the Gundam Factory. Fuck. Well, c’est la vie….I guess it wasn’t meant to be.
We were feeling particularly unmotivated back in Tokyo, so we grabbed a variety of food from the Food Show food hall below Shibuya Mark City and had a mini-feast in our hotel room.
Day 11 – Last Day in Japan
We didn’t feel like hunting down breakfast again our last full day in Japan, so we opted for breakfast at the hotel. It was still early in the morning, so we decided to make a trip out to Gotokuji, the famous lucky cat shrine. Even though it was tucked away in a quieter area of Tokyo, I think it was definitely worth a visit. We left a cat statue amongst the collection.
Our last day in Japan and we finally made it a point to explore Shibuya properly. We roamed around Shibuya Stream and Tokyu Hands, then continued on towards Daikanyama, Log Road, the T-Site, and the small shops scattered about. We headed back to Shibuya as the sun began to set and finally had a chance to explore the new Shibuya Parco Building. The exterior path led us a ways up into the building, we explored the Nintendo World floor briefly (though it was mobbed), then continued up until we reached the top (accessible) floor where we could look out onto the city, and even glimpse Mt Fuji in the far distance.
It was time for us to (finally) head to the Shibuya Scramble Tower for the Shibuya Sky platform. Though there was a bit of wait for our group to finally ascend the elevator, and even though it was a fairly brisk night out, the views out onto Tokyo were absolutely amazing. Open air 47 floors and 750 feet above street level, the panoramic views were absolutely worth the trip. I think we shot dozens of videos of every angle imaginable. 5 stars, would come again.
⇲ Shibuya Sky
This was our last opportunity for Tokyo dining, so we decided to wait in line at Sushi Matsue in the Shibuya Scramble Tower for whatever was available. Luckily for us we were seated at the counter and were treated to a full omakase dinner. The sushi was absolutely amazing, and surprisingly (or not) a fraction of the average price in New York. Definitely nice having an omakase dinner cap off our Japan trip.
I think writing this summary highlighted alot of the missed opportunities for more food and exploration during our trip. But it was our first real trip together, and my girlfriend let me know beforehand that she wasn’t a big traveler (and hadn’t taken any long vacations prior to this) so the pace of this trip was more modest and measured. Having said that, it sounds like Chi-Chi did like Japan alot, and the next trip back has been green-lit! We’ll be looking to the South and onsens to the North.