- A two week grand tour to show my friend the sights and sounds and alcohol of Japan. So much alcohol. The food was delicious too. Warning, two week vacations equate to an excessively long post. This was by far the longest vacation I’ve ever taken.
Due to some cost calculations and no good flights into Kansai Airport, I arrived at Narita Airport a day earlier than my friend, though we were actually meeting in Osaka. I landed in the late afternoon and was staying at Nine Hours Asakusa, so I wandered Asakusa a bit after checking in. I thought though that I should try and sleep off any potential jetlag. So after a quick dinner, I retired early to my wee capsule.
Day 1 – Osaka
After checking out in the morning, I took coffee and breakfast on the ground floor at Fuglen before heading to Tokyo Station. A brief Shinkansen ride later, I arrived in Osaka, a city I hadn’t visited since 1999. I remember close to nothing from my college trip. So for all intents and purposes, Osaka was completely new to me. My friend wouldn’t arrive for a few hours, so I dropped my luggage off at our Airbnb and wandered up and down Dotonbori. I have this weird hangup with drinking by myself, so I mainly snacked on takoyaki and took photos of the boats floating up and down the canal.
My friend landed in the evening, so I headed to Namba Station to meet her. The streets were starting to get mobbed with pedestrians clamoring for the street food stalls as we made our way back to Dotonbori. We dropped her luggage off, then headed back out to meet another friend of mine that was also coincidentally in Osaka. Cecca was a friend I’d met through my cousin back in 2011, then met again in New York City and Berlin (where she’s based). Now we were having a mini Japan reunion. She knew her way around Osaka and led us to a small cafe in Umeda that looked like a cozy cabin in the woods. Between the two Asians and the Italian girl, I’m sure the staff were surprised to learn the Italian girl was the one speaking Japanese.
Day 2 – Osaka Castle and Umeda
We were up bright and early the next day to officially start the first full day of the Japan Grand Tour ©. First on the agenda was Osaka Castle, which I don’t think I’d ever been. It’s a reconstruction, so it’s not as cool as say, Himeji Castle. But it was hot as hell that day, so this modern reconstruction’s air conditioning was more than welcome. We headed back north towards Umeda afterwards to see the sights around the gargantuan Osaka Station and do a bit of shopping.
⇲ Osaka Station
We had dinner in the evening at ふくろう (Owl) that a friend had recommended and was owned by their friend’s parents. They supposedly made reservations for us, except they didn’t. Oops. I didn’t know this at the time, so we spent the first half hour making weird hand gestures and trying to order from the Japanese menu. With a bit of sleuthing and vague descriptions of our friend (and possibly the hand gestures), the chef was finally able to figure out who we were and who exactly we knew. After the confusion was cleared up, he began throwing plate after plate of amazing food in front of us and sharing a bottle of wine. An absolutely awesome dinner…thank you Chef. We took a post-dinner pitstop at Rock Bar Cherry Bomb for drinks before retiring for the night.
⇲ Himeji Castle
Day 3 – Himeji and Kobe
We caught a train to Himeji the next morning to see Himeji Castle. There were no ninjas training unfortunately, but there were plenty of Chinese tourists. We finished touring the castle grounds and the gorgeous Koko-en Gardens next door before noon, so we decided on a whim that we wanted a massive slab of wagyu for lunch. We share-biked back to the station, ducked into a Mos Burger (my friend was craving them), then hopped on a train to Kobe and decided on Mouriya Lin. We splurged for A5 Kobe sirloin, because I specifically remember as a poor college student, I had to settle on a tiny cut. I’m an adult now (physically anyway); I get to blow wads of cash on premium steak (hooray!) They tried to feed us sides of vegetables and whatnot, which was unnecessary. Just feed me the Kobe steak.
We were about to do a bit of sightseeing around Kitano-cho after lunch when we walked past someone carrying a huge Fukuju bag, and I remembered that one of my favorite sake breweries happened to be based out of Kobe. Interest in sight-seeing quickly evaporated, and we instead took a train down to the brewery district. Unfortunately, touring the brewery required reservations. But we did sample a myriad of sake at their shop, and we both walked away with “gifts and souvenirs.” Liquor…we bought alot of liquor.
We headed back to Osaka afterwards, but the Kobe lunch was so filling/satisfying that we skipped dinner. We also might’ve passed out from residual jetlag.
⇲ Todai-ji Temple
Day 4 – Nara and Kyoto
Our last day in Osaka. We had planned Nara as a day trip from Kyoto, but decided instead to swing through on the way to Kyoto. I suppose we could’ve spent more time exploring the city and whatnot, but we really just wanted to get to Kyoto. So we gave Todai-ji the time it deserved (it really is still one of my favorite temples), exploring the temple hall and giant Buddha while also dodging the deer around the park, then immediately continued on to Kyoto. The city of a thousand temples…and also delicious food. We did some light exploration of Kyoto Station, more for my nostalgia than anything, before taking a bus towards Shijo Kawaramachi. We dropped our things off at The Millenials, then immediately started exploring the shopping arcades criss-crossing the area. We found out quickly that Nishiki Market starts shutting down around sunset, so we weren’t able to sample as much as we wanted. After coming out the western side of Nishiki, we ducked into Sushi Sei for an appetizing sushi dinner, then began our Pontocho exploration at Hello Dolly. Our first day in Kyoto was closed out with cocktails, classics on vinyl, and amazing views out to the Kamo River.
Day 5 – Kikunoi and Fushimi
Thanks to jetlag, getting up bright and early in the morning was not a problem. This was convenient in Kyoto since the temples like to open up bright and early as well. We started our day wandering the grounds of Yasaka Shrine, then into adjacent Maruyama Park. We continued on towards Chion-in, which was fun to explore, then wandered deep into Higashiyama. I was worried it would spoil our eventual Kiyomizu exploration, so we turned back. Which worked out anyway as we had reservations at the inimitable Kikunoi for a kaiseki lunch. Full disclosure, my friend was a little underwhelmed. I don’t think this had to do with Kikunoi specifically…more likely with kaiseki in general.
“It’s ok, maybe I’ll try kaiseki again sometime.”
“Hmm, if you were underwhelmed with Kikunoi, considered one of the best kaiseki restaurants in the world, I don’t think anywhere else will be changing your mind.”
Well I thought the food was delicious. We did a bit more wandering and shopping around Higashiyama before taking a train south to Fushimi Inari. Funny observation: I don’t think this was the case during my last trip to Kyoto in 2011, but they had set up a tourist path that led through the first set of torii gates before circling back to the entrance. Five to ten minutes, get your Instagram on, then head out. I thought it was funny.
We continued past the first batch of gates towards the ascent, where the throngs of tourists thinned out extremely fast. From there it was about an hour’s hike to the peak of Mt Inari. Unfortunately though, because it was close to sunset, every pitstop along the way had closed. Which was a bit inconvenient as it was a particularly hot day. Where the hell are you, autumn? The best part was yet to come though, as we descended the mountain on the wrong side (we went down a service road) and were dumped out into the middle of a residential area half an hour from the entrance to Fushimi. We strolled back so we could do a bit more sight-seeing around the proper shrine. We then took a train back towards central Kyoto, wandered through shops of questionable repute, had delicious soba at Kyoto Nakanokoan, then found ourselves back in Pontocho at Atlantis, watching a group of retirees get one of their like-wise elderly friends absolutely shit-faced.
Day 6 – Kiyomizu-dera
One thing we’d neglected to do since we arrived was to get fluffy pancakes. Because have you seen those photos of them? They look amazing. So we took our breakfast at ELK Pancakes a short walk from our hostel. Absolutely delicious, would come again. I need to see if the pancakes in New York are equally good (the ones here are mostly branches of Japanese chains). With souffle pancakes in our bellies, we headed back to Higashiyama to visit my favorite temple in Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera. Much of the temple was unfortunately still being renovated, so the grand terrace wasn’t as grand. We headed into the main hall, wandered down to the fountains, and continued back towards Sanneizaka to continue our window-shopping from the day before.
We wanted to get a taste of Nishiki, so we headed back before the stalls began closing to try the various street vendors. We continued exploring the shops in the area before heading south towards Kyoto Station to have tsukemen at Ginjo Ramen Kubota. They made a miso-based tsukemen broth, and it was absolutely delicious. It unfortunately reinforced my suspicions that my stomach was no longer able to handle the richness of tsukemen broth. Pour one out for my stomach.
We continued on to Kyoto Station to do a bit of night-time urban exploration. I’ve personally loved Kyoto Station since my college days. Our summer trip was based out of Kyoto, and we stayed just south of the station at the New Miyako; so we engaged the station pretty much everyday while we were in Kyoto. The massive station has numerous nooks and crannies that make it ripe for exploration. We relaxed on the western steps, trekked across the sky bridge (that I didn’t even know existed until my 2011 trip), and goofed around the eastern side near the Granvia Hotel that I stayed at during a past trip. We skipped alcohol for one day, and instead relaxed back at The Millenials.
⇲ Kyoto Station
Day 7 – Arashiyama and Typhoon Hagibis
By this time on our trip, our friends in Tokyo had messaged us saying that the Shinkansen was being shut down because of the typhoon. So we would have to extend our stay in Kyoto by a day. Typhoon Hagibis made landfall on October 12th and started battering Kyoto (though not as badly as other parts of Japan). Despite the typhoon, I thought it would be worthwhile to visit Arashiyama; because one, it’s normally crowded, and tourists generally don’t like being out in typhoons; and two, maybe the bamboo forest would be amazing during the typhoon. Both these points turned out to be true. Unfortunately many of the sights were like-wise closed because of the aforementioned typhoon, such as Tenryuji and the Sagano Scenic Railway But standing in the bamboo groves as the winds whipped the stalks was absolutely amazing.
Rewinding slightly back to when we first got to Arashiyama though, we thought about crossing the famous Togetsukyo Bridge, but the ripping winds convinced us to “fuck that” and go souvenir shopping. We began walking towards Tenryuji, but had to duck into the eX Cafe to take a breather. After some tea and dango, we made it another few feet before calling it again and taking an early udon lunch at Ozuru. We eventually made it to Tenryuji, only to find out that it had closed. So we had to head towards the river to access the park that led to the bamboo grove.
It took us a bit of trekking to get back to central Kyoto (closed rail stations etc), but we eventually made our way to Curry Shirabe for some amazing (and unique) curry rice. Not many people were out and about, so we had the restaurant more or less to ourselves. We then continued drinking our way through Pontocho at SferaBar Satonaka. Even getting to the bar felt odd and mysterious, like we were breaking into a closed shop. But when we did finally make it up to the bar, we again had the place to ourselves.
Day 8 – Kichi Kichi
The day after the typhoon was our extended day in Kyoto. While Kyoto had been unexpectedly warm (even hot) up to this point, the trip from this day on felt like the typhoon dragged in autumn with it. We started the day with some culturing at the Imperial Palace. I’m not sure we even saw this during my college trip (and if we did, sorry Chuck and Lenny). We made our way back to Pontocho during the daytime to try our luck at Kichi Kichi (actual name Yoshokuya Kichi Kichi). They’d gotten insanely popular since the last time I visited. So without a reservation, you waited in line in the hopes that someone didn’t show up to theirs. But we got in! Except there was only a ten minute window available, which we still gladly took. Even the tiny portion we ordered tasted amazing.
We wandered back to Shijo Kawaramachi to do some light shopping for anything we might’ve missed, and Nishiki one last time for any food vendors we were still craving. Something we’d neglected to get when we were in Osaka was okonomiyaki, so we decided to remedy that with our last dinner in Kyoto at Nishiki Warai. We headed to another old spot of mine, Bar K6, for after-dinner drinks. The bar was unexpectedly rowdy, with a lively crowd gathered to watch the Rugby Championships. It was all good though, because Japan beat Scotland 28-21.
Day 9 – Tokyo
We took the Shinkansen Monday morning to the final leg of our trip, Tokyo. The finale to our tour, if finales were composed of delicious food, life-sized Gundams, maid cafes, and hyper-modern cities. We checked into our home base, Book and Bed Shinjuku, and started wandering the immediate vicinity. I wanted my friend’s first impression of Tokyo to be as enduring as mine, so I dragged her over to the Park Hyatt Hotel as the sun started to set. I wasn’t interested in the New York Bar though. They’re oft times too fussy and crowded. My memories of the Park Hyatt were actually of their lobby bar, the Peak Bar. It’s considerably less crowded (there were only two other groups on our side of the bar) and you had your pick of views. Forty-one floors up in the air, we sunk into our seats and relaxed with some cocktails as the city lit up. After we were done city-gazing, we strolled back towards Kabukicho and grabbed a late dinner at a yakitori spot called Haruta-ya.
⇲ Book and Bed Shinjuku
Day 10 – Akihabara and Ginza
I have a bit of a ritual whenever I visit Tokyo; wandering Akihabara for things I shouldn’t buy, followed immediately with photography at the Tokyo Forums. With my friend in tow however, I charitably abbreviated our Akiba excursion; I could always go back on my own. I then took my friend to wander the halls of the Tokyo Forums. The space and scale of the main atrium still awes me to this day; I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of taking photos there. As an aside, my friend let me know that she had never been to a Shake Shack before. Thankfully there was one in the Forums that could help remedy this situation. We called this “breakfast” and we each got a Shack Burger. Full disclosure, I love me a Shack Burger. But my friend was unimpressed (again). I was surprised at first, so I took a bite of mine. And hmm, it doesn’t taste the same as the ones in New York. Less salty, with a little less crispy burnt edges, and a smaller helping of the sauce. Maybe it was an off-day? Or maybe this was how it was tweaked for Japanese tastes? I have no idea.
⇲ Tokyo Forums
We continued our exploration of Marunouchi, then headed to Kitte where we had kaiten sushi at Nemuro Hanamaru, a spot recommended by a friend. After lunch, we continued south into Ginza, where the majority of the day was a complete blur to me as my friend went buckwild. She’d found her home in Tokyo. As the dinner hours approached, we had katsu at Ginza Bairin, then headed back west for my friend’s first taste of Shibuya at night. We did the prerequisite Shibuya Crossing photos, a few time-lapses, then finally got to try a bar I’d wanted to go to for some time, DJ Bar Bridge. We arrived a bit earlier than the usual crowd, so we cozied up to one of the window seats. The music and sound system were both amazing, and we spent the next couple hours downing drinks, nibbling on snacks, and gazing back towards the crossing.
Day 11 – Omotesando
Meiji Jingu was our first stop of the morning. Our first two days in Tokyo were super-cityish, so a bit of respite in the middle of the city was called for. We exited out the wrong side of the park (memories of Fushimi started resurfacing), and ended up one station away from Harajuku Station. We did come across the cute Hachiya Tea Stand while strolling back, so that made it worthwhile. Takeshita Dori hasn’t really been interesting in a long time, so we minimized our time there on our way to Omotesando. We grabbed a quick lunch in the area (nothing worth noting) before continuing our shopping and sight-seeing, exploring Tadao Ando’s Omotesando Hills, Cat Street and Urahara, and taking a coffee break on the rooftop of Tokyu Plaza. Hmm, I just realized I forgot to take my friend to the Herzog de Meuron Prada Store.
My friend Gina had arrived in Tokyo the day before, so we headed back to Shibuya to finally all meet up at the Theatre Cafe in Hikarie. We then took a taxi to Roppongi, wandering through Tokyo Midtown a bit before our dinner reservations at Hal Yamashita. We wanted to continue our streak of bars with views, so we headed to the nearby bar at the Ritz-Carlton. To say we were underwhelmed would be an understatement. What the hell are you doing, Carlton? Disappointed. We headed to my backup bar-with-a-view, the Rooftop Bar at Toranomon Hills. The Pros: the drinks were good, and the views from the 52nd floor can’t be anything but amazing. The Cons: it’s technically outdoors, as it’s not completely enclosed. At least they provided blankets.
⇲ Tokyo Midtown
Day 12 – Asakusa and Odaiba
Our attempts to beat the morning tourist crowds in Asakusa weren’t terribly successful. We might’ve taken our time heading out in the morning. We explored the crowded temple grounds of Senso-ji, bought fake food souvenirs, took ice cream and taiyaki breaks, then took in the views from the top of the Kengo Kuma Asakusa Tourist Center.
As a break from the usual sights, I took my friend to Shiodome to see the Ghibli Clock. We got incredibly lucky and arrived just before the hour struck when the clock comes alive. That was pretty awesome. We were getting a bit hungry by this time, so my friend was the one to remind me that there were Din Tai Fungs in Tokyo. New Yorkers are so used to being the only ones in the world that don’t seem to have a Din Tai Fung that the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. Thankfully there was one conveniently located in Shiodome. Mmm…soup dumplings.
After lunch, it was time to hop aboard the Yurikamome and head towards Odaiba. I think I’d shown great restraint holding off on my Gundam pilgrimage until the fourth day. We paid our respects to the Gundam Unicorn, wandered around Diver City, then decided it was as good a time as any to head to the largest Starbucks in the world in Nakameguro. Well, formerly largest, as the Roastery in Chicago has since opened. We relaxed at their bar, drinking coffee-based cocktails one after another; then met up with local friends of my friend at Trattoria Tanta Bocca. I think we called it a night after that.
Day 13 – Personal Day
Our grand tour was sadly nearing the finish line, so we decided to split for the day to shop on our own. My friend headed back to Ginza, while I went back to Akihabara to try and not buy anything. Our initial Akiba visit was pretty brief; we tore through Radio Kaikan, Super Potato, and maybe the Animate at breakneck speed. With my friend running around Ginza though, I took my sweet time, and then completely failed at not buying something (damn you Mandarake). I can’t actually remember what we had for lunch (unagi at one of the department store restaurants?) Eh whatever. I headed to Daikanyama briefly to meet up with my friend Gina and her mother, then headed back to Akiba for a bit more shopping. My friend and I met up for a quick dinner at a CoCo Ichibanya back in Kabukicho. Gina joined us, and we continued onto Golden Gai for some drinks. Hecate, the bar I hit up during my last trip, was full; so we tried the bar next door, Pony ポニー. The bar turned out to be pretty nice, as they had an irori in the center that the elderly owner was using to cook various dishes for us. Very cool.
We continued onwards to meet up with the friends we had Italian with the other night to go clubbing in Ni-chome. Dragon Men was it? Interesting place…my friends were definitely having fun. At least up until a girl next to us got black-out drunk, then vomited all over herself while her friends were worried they’d be thrown out. What the hell.
Day 14 – Last Day
Our last full day in Japan, so we headed out early in the morning to take my friend around Daikanyama. We relaxed at the T-Site, caught a live piano performance, wandered the boutiques, then had an Italian lunch at Gio. We continued north back into Shibuya, tried to squeeze through the insane crowds at the Mega Donki, took in the (relatively) new Shibuya Stream area (that is some incredibly impressive circulation design and planning), then met up with Gina for some beer and yakitori at a local izakaya 狼煙 norosi. Our final night…and trip…was capped with amazing drinks at Bar Legacy. Stay classy, Japan.
⇲ Bar Legacy