WARNING! – This is not your typical travel diary.
7 days – 3 best friends – Ramen, verbal chefs & department store food halls. Speed trains, Onsen’s & shopping. This is a collection of our favourite things from our very on-the-go itinerary.
In April I travelled to Japan with 2 of the best girls I know. The 3 of us met at a time in our lives when we were young, footloose and (somewhat) fancy free, living and working in New York City. Since that time we’ve seen weddings, 8 babies between us & 1 puppy, overseas moves, new jobs and new businesses. We don’t get to be together often but like all good friendships time apart doesn’t seem to matter and we pick up where we left off last. But we’re all somewhat pressed for time so let’s just say there was not a great deal of planning that went on! More like desperate google-searching the moment we hit the ground (not ideal but the reality).
Tokyo was our first stop. We started off with good intentions, heading straight to the Meji-jingū Shrine in the Yoyogi park. An amazingly peaceful and vast park in the middle of the Tokyo hustle & bustle. Definitely a place to find your inner zen and dip your toe in the Shrine water.
After that it kind of went downhill as far as site-seeing goes and very quickly became a trip about eating, talking and shopping!
We left the serenity of Yoyogi straight into the Harajuku neighbourhood and the little alley ways around Omote-sandō.
Here I found one of my favourite shops on my trip – Unby Official. I’ve always loved stores like this that get the mix of utility and style just right. I loved it so much I came back a second time.
The staff were great too, giving us tips on things to do in the city and more importantly where to eat Ramen in Harajuku. We were very wisely pointed in the direction of Ichiran, a chain of Tonkotsu Ramen bars in the city. It ticked all the boxes – we had to queue to get in (✔️), there was a lost in translation moment trying to order from the vending machine (✔️), we then had to wait even more (✔️), we were seated in our own personal little booth where we could slurp away in private (✔️) and last but not least we were presented with a piping hot bowl of noodle goodness complete with a googy egg on top – heaven!!
The afternoon we jumped on the subway to explore the retro neighbourhood Koenji. We’d read about then many cool vintage stores, in particular Sokkyou. You’ll need google maps for this one! Sokkyou is located at the end of a very non-descript laneway with next to no signage on the door. But inside you will find a treasure trove of meticulously kept vintage items.
I could have stayed wandering the streets of Koenji. The vibe there was cool and low key. But move on we must – dinner was calling. Dinner was at Inakaya West, a Robatayaki style BBQ restaurant. Dinner at Inakaya is up there as one of my all-time favourite dining experiences.
Like many Japanese restaurants, Inakaya is non-descript from the street. But, peel back the sliding door and it’s like you’re stepping into a different world. Inakaya comes at you from all levels. The waiters & chefs shout greetings at your arrival and direct you to your seat. There’s smoke, vibrant colours, intoxicating smells and laughter from the other diners. The Robatayaki chefs sit before you on a stage (this is a performance after all), surrounded by the most amazingly fresh produce. Ordering is easy – get the chefs attention, point to a delicacy and he will grill it for you over piping hot charcoal. My favourites were the spring onions & broad beans. Simple and delicious
Day 2 we wandered some more. Brunch at Aoyama Flower Market in Minami-aoyama surrounded by blooms of all descriptions.
Now have it be known I love a food hall and Japanese food halls are up there with the best - so many options! Wander the sprawling maze like floors of little vendors selling the impeccable delicacies. We took our selections up to the rooftop of Isetan where there is a quiet Japanese garden and had a little picnic. I highly recommend seeking out the department store foodhalls wherever you are in Japan.
The afternoon quickly became night. It was a Friday and we felt like kicking up our heels a little. We frocked up and headed to drinks at the Park Hyatt. Made famous as the setting for Bill & Scarlett’s meeting place in “Lost in Translation”. They met in the New York Grill Bar on the top-floor. We opted for the Peak Bar on the 41st Floor as they have a really generous happy hour and just as brilliant views over the city.
From here the evening kind of took a turn. I’m not sure why but we thought we needed to have a sushi experience. 2 out of the 3 of us don’t really love sushi so I’m not sure where this thought came from but it did. (And I’m only including it in this travel diary because I believe you do like sushi then you might like this little tip as it was a top quality sushi restaurant without the killer price tag).
We went to a nondescript restaurant in the Azabujuban neighbourhood called Matsukan.
Seated in front of our sushi master we were given piece after piece of (I have no doubt) high quality seafood, each one getting more and more challenging as we progressed. Needless to say, we didn’t last very long, but I can report that all the other diners around us seemed to be really enjoying themselves. We on the other hand needed a walk and some frozen yoghurt!
Day 3 we needed to rid ourselves of the sushi memory so we headed early out to Tsukiji. Now you can get up at sunrise and head out to these world-famous fish markets and take in the wholesale auction process, or you can get up at a reasonable hour, like 9am, and head out to wander the outer markets which are just as buzzing and fabulously fun.
Of course we needed coffee first so as with most morings we jumped onto google, searched for “best coffee near Tsukiji”. We came across Turret Coffee and it did not disappoint. In fact, it was so good we stayed for 2 strong flat whites.
Back to Tsukiji we sampled different foods, rummaged through pottery shops for gifts and got caught up in the flow of people. Along the side streets of Tsukiji there are countless small stores selling different things to eat. I can’t tell you where we ate or what we ate really but I can tell you to just jump on a long queue and give it a go. We shared a bowl of a piping hot curry and it was awesome.
The afternoon was spent getting lost in Shimokitazawa neighbourhood which has been labelled Tokyo’s bohemian hub. We wandered the narrow streets, shopped a little and had our very first experience at a Tokyo video game arcade and thought we were hilarious, using a Purikura or photo booth.
Dinner was a slightly more grown up affair at Honmura An in Roppongi. An intimate restaurant specialising in the art of soba. We had a lovely, seasonal meal with beautiful wines, amazing service and more importantly it didn’t break the bank.
Day 4 was Kyoto day! A quick 2 hour Shinkansen, or bullet train, journey from the heart of Tokyo straight to Kyoto. A brilliant way to travel.
Kyoto was very different to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. We spent the first afternoon wandering the old part of the city, Gion, marvelling at the beautiful vignettes of cobbled lanes, blossoms and waterways. And we weren’t the only ones. Like an adult playground, Gion attracts tourists from all over with the aim of dressing up in traditional kimonos, tottering in wooden flip-flops all while getting their photos taken. What felt quaint at first seemed to get a little weird!
That afternoon we also had a mission. Our mission, to seek and find a canvas tote bag handcrafted by a company that’s been making them for over 110 years. Our mission was a success. Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu located in the heart of Kyoto has 2 levels of handmade canvas bags in every shape and colour imaginable. If you’re a lover of functional craftsmanship then this place is worth a visit.
Day 5 we were craving some R&R and had an insiders tip to make the short journey to the Kurama Onsen. This day was a highlight of our entire Japan experience.
But first coffee! Google came through with the goods again, Kurasu, located just below Kyoto train station. So good we had 2 (sensing a pattern??)
Kurama was a great introduction to the onsen, or traditional bathhouse experience. There are indoor baths and magical heated outdoor baths surrounded by cedar forests and mountains. Serenity plus. We spent the morning wallowing away and followed by the most simple of lunches in the traditional dining room. We left the onsen feeling tuly zen and squeaky clean.
From the onsen we climbed up to the Buddhist temple, Kurama-dera. And what a gorgeous place to take in a traditional temple. There were next to no other people there too which is a rarity in Japan. Just further extending our zen experience.
Day 6 was all about Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, located on the western outskirts of Kyoto, this place was tourist mad. But we were determined to walk the bamboo grove and retain that connection we had developed to nature from our onsen day.
The tourists did our heads in so we high tailed it back to our bags and back to Tokyo for one last night. We spent the late afternoon wandering the streets of Harajuku again for some shopping. Picking up new sunnies at Paris Miki and Japanese denim at Japan Blue Jean. We had an awesome dinner, stumbling across another queue and jumping on board. Chao Chao Bamboo is a Thai restaurant, after 5 days we were craving some food with a real punch and we were drawn to it’s cheap and cheerful nature, crammed in with the other dinners, over doing the wine and devouring amazing Thai food. Memorable.
Day 7 we had a full day to kill before our flight home, so after my obligatory trip to the Pokemon store for my 9 year old we spent the day in Daikanyama, a tranquil neighbourhood with excellent boutique shopping and dining. Lunch was oh so simple, but oh so divine at the blink and you’ll miss it, Suezen.
Shopping was oh so successful at UES and we topped it all off with an oh so divine massage at Terme Felice, an organic day spa hidden upstairs near the train station. A gorgeous end to a gorgeous day.
Ah Japan. I love you. But next time I promise to do some more research before I come and not rely on our old pall Google.