My husband and I took our annual holiday in August 2016, and enjoyed an amazing trip to Japan, that was probably one of the most memorable trips we’ve ever made so far. Japan society is very unique, and its people have this very special thing of respect towards each other that can’t compare to any other people anywhere in the world. In Japan, it seems that every single person is showing his/her intention to participate to building a greater good for all, giving the feeling that they all are an important link in the chain. Nobody is useless, everybody does play a special role. The same applies to the objects and service to customers, it must be perfect all the time, which is extremely enjoyable from a consumer’s point of view. Everywhere we went, we enjoyed the perfect place, the perfect time, the perfect stroll, the perfect food, the perfect service, the perfect shopping experience, the perfect everything! At first, we were reluctant to make such a long journey and only stay 10 days, but we didn’t regret it at all: indeed, one can see a lot in 10 days if one doesn’t stay in bed all morning; it is really essential to get pre-organized in terms of transportation and regroup visits by district in order to get the most out of each day. Here are the highlights of our trip.
- A feast of Sushis of the highest quality. Sushis will never taste the same again for me, ever. Sushis are one of my favorite foods. In Japan, it is no secret that they are made with top respect of the fish flesh, and sushi-making is a state of the art technique. Besides, the thick slice of fish always is sublimed over a fair proportion of rice underneath, which is really different from the sushis we are served in Europe where the rice often is too voluminous. I would love to recommend great restaurants, but sorry I can’t, they are all serving amazing quality sushis! Of course, you could go to expensive places and live the local experience up to the worldwide Japanese reputation, but for a regular budget traveler, one can honestly find marvels all over the country without paying big money. I have been surprised to observe that the variety of sushis is lesser though, but it doesn’t matter when quality is part of the experience itself.
- Experience several nights in a Ryokan, the Japanese traditional inn. Isn’t that style lovely and pure enough that you can’t resist trying it for a few nights?! And it’s comfortable, yes it is! For the body, for the mind, for the soul and for the sake of harmony in your life. Absolutely! We sat at the table for evening tea after long days walking and wandering around, and slept on a traditional Japanese futon. After the first night, our host had the courtesy to ask about our sleep, and as the futon happened to be slightly too thin for us, she offered to immediately add a layer to it, which turned out to be perfect for the next few nights. Meals could be served in the room upon request, but we decided to eat out. Sanitaries were shared (see below) and the Onsen (public bath) was an experience of its own. Finally, our host totally surprised us by offering to do our laundry for free at mid-stay, which was really nice after a week travel. Perfect service for a sensational local experience.
- Eat gyoza. Try local snacks. Drink a Japanese beer. Buy Japanese weird desserts. Try anything from outdoor stalls, this is all so fun! Food is so visible everywhere all the time, day and night, that I sincerely have honest hesitations about the correct wording to use. Do we talk about food culture or food industry? Food is for sure a super component of Japan culture, two ways: same as in every culture it first defines its people by the way food is cooked, styled, respected, served, preserved, packaged or wrapped, and at the same time the people do “cultivate this culture” built up around food. On the other hand, the notion of food industry comes to mind too, not in the sense of canned or processed food, but more in terms of massive volume of offerings. Indeed, the Japanese seldom cook at home because only few houses have enough space for a real kitchen, therefore eating out is the norm for all the Japanese, and restaurants as well as take-outs flood every city all over the country. As examples of things we tried (slide your mouse over the pictures), there are of course Gyoza (local ravioli), Asahi beer draught, Japanese-style hard-boiled eggs, and shaved ice with flavored syrup. We also had a sort of lemon fluffy cake filled with a not too sweet lemon paste; we tried red bean paste dessert too; my husband went to a shop to make his own ice-cream combo with candies and fruits (the weight of his composition indicated the price to pay); and we saw everywhere these colorful crepes filled with cream, syrup and fruits, but sometimes with tuna salad, cucumber and lettuce, none of which we tried. And of course, there is the Bento box, this traditional Japanese lunch set that you can easily travel with. As we did a lot of travels by train, a Bento box came in handy for our last journey, and as we wanted to “play Japanese” full-speed, we gave into the Bento as the locals do.
- Visit beautiful temples, such as Senso-ji in Tokyo, and Higashi Hogan-ji in Kyoto. When we visit a city in Asia, we are not spending our whole holiday visiting temples because our time is counted and there is so much more to see, but they are still part of the local cultural heritage so we usually enjoy a visit or two. My advice would be to study well your guidebook prior to your trip, and pick the temples you think you want to visit vs check if the distance is manageable and if the visits can easily be included within your day (as per transportation, distance, is it on your way to another interesting site or do you need to make a big detour, etc.). For instance, we visited the Senso-ji in Tokyo because it is a major touristic attraction, and because the district of Asakusa – in which the temple is located – was of absolute interest to us. On the contrary, we only visited the Higashi Hogan-ji in Kyoto because it was located nearby our ryokan and we had an hour to kill before leaving (otherwise we would have probably passed), but it turned out to be a wonderful idea because this temple was a marvel of pure majesty.
- Start your day at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, or finish your afternoon at the Nishiki Market in Kyoto, and on all occasions keep your eyes wide open. Japan definitely is the place for freshness as well as for cooked or grilled-on-the-spot fishes, produces, seaweeds, octopus, poultry, eggs, etc. In both markets, it is not a local custom to touch the goods, I would even say that it is a custom not to touch the goods in Japan. If you touch an item, especially food, it means you intend to buy it. It works a little differently for non-edible items (regular objects), but in Tsukiji Fish Market of Tokyo, nobody is touching anything, which I think is very hygienic. In the Nishiki Market of Kyoto, the same rule applies, however anybody can taste a lot of different foods there. You can either buy all sorts of skewers, or wander around and try samples (eat or smell) of condiments, seaweeds, tea leaves and powders, etc. Overall, it is a very lively experience.
- Hang out in shopping arcades and you’ll live a vivid experience of what Japanese modern way of life feels like. Shopping arcades are a classic in most of medium to big size cities. When the weather is deadly hot and humid in Summer, these shopping arcades are an oasis of freshness as they are fully air-conditioned. In Winter, shopping arcades are heated. And of course, they are FULL of restaurants, coffee shops, souvenirs stores, garment shops, and so on. The shopping arcades are packed with people, whether they are tourists or locals, and everybody walks peacefully in the crowd, hanging out together with friends or family or both, having fun, always. The feeling is really nice, and it feels very safe as well, which adds-up to this feeling that you can totally relax and enjoy a great time.
- Stay overnight in the Japanese Alps’s small town of Takayama, and visit the neighbor village of Hida. You could decide to stay in big cities, or you could (like us) decide to explore small town Japan and villages in the mountains. From Tokyo, the journey is as simple to organize as saying “hello”: take the fast train from Tokyo to Nagoya, and transfer to a regional train from Nagoya to Takayama. We stayed in a ryokan, the Minshuku Kuwataniya, and had a wonderful stay in a very family-like atmosphere. A small inn with only a few bedrooms, a beautiful Onsen, and again an impeccable service. This is where we figured out the Japanese are very kean on punctuality, this is not something you can play with. Check-in time is slightly negotiable, check-out time is not at all. Beware! Their taste for precision sometimes is disturbing. This is one of the reasons why, till now, I still can’t understand how so many cities did not name their streets, and it is so easy for foreigners to get lost (we did, get lost)!! Takayama is a very nice small town, its river is the Miyagawa, and a morning market is organized along this river every day. What I loved in this place was the dark wood used to build all houses, it really gives a special and classy atmosphere to this town. On the contrary, Hida is a reconstituted village located about 15 minutes drive away from Takayama (local bus), built in a fair colour wood, and meant to tell how Japanese life was 200 years ago. Both Takayama and Hida are interesting though very different, and overall they are quite worth a visit if you can go (we stayed 24 hours and had a great time). Note that unlike in big cities, most restaurants are closed around 20:30 every day in Takayama. Going to Hida is fun but do not make it a full day tour, as just a few hours suffice, and the last return to Takayama by bus is at 16:45.
- Spend a fun evening in Osaka, and by fun I mean real fun. Osaka definitely is one of my favorite cities in Japan so far. I have lived in Guangzhou (China) for many years, and I can tell Osaka is really close to Guangzhou in terms of mentality, laid-back atmosphere, “feel-free” impression, and so on. People are really easy-going and much more modern than in Tokyo, as the capital city is all-in-all very “corporate”. The city is well known for its ever-developing cuisine, and is more and more attracting amazing chefs from all over the world. Nevertheless, this is in Osaka that we had our best and most memorable sushi experience.We loved going to a restaurant where the chef was dedicated to us only. We tasted sushis with the best fish texture ever, and we left the place totally amazed by the remaining and long-lasting flavors in our mouth. We’ve learnt that a sushi is meant to be eaten as a whole at once, and a good sushi can be recognized by its right size. Delicious AND entertaining! Then, we strolled about in the streets of Osaka after nightfall, in the middle of young crowds getting ready to party all night long in the numerous bars, clubs and karaokes of downtown Osaka which name is Dotonburi, in a very (always) safe and fun environment. We took the Shinkansen (Japan famous bullet train) to return to Kyoto, as a lot of other tourists and locals alike are doing every night, getting back home within no time, this was so convenient. We – just – LOVED – Osaka!
- Take your shoes off at the restaurant and enjoy a relaxing dinner, Japanese-style, as comfy as if you were having dinner at home. There is this great custom in Japan that you are invited to take your shoes off all the time and everywhere. Whether getting in a temple, or entering a house, this is the same at the restaurant: cleanliness and relaxation are key concepts in Japan. And to tell the truth, this is such a great concept! It sounds basic and simple, but simply being bare foot helps enjoying more at the table, especially after a long day walking around a city. Now that we are back to France, we’d love to do that too at the restaurant here, but I’m not sure we won’t be firmly reminded of French good manners…!
- Enjoy an afternoon in Nara and feed the deers that are wandering around freely in the park of the Todai-ji. This was undoubtfuly one of the top highlights of our trip! Visiting cities after cities after cities can sometimes be exhausting for the mind (even when very exciting), and a short break into nature can appear salvatory. Besides, this visit can easily be arranged as a day trip or less from Kyoto (we spent the afternoon after we visited the Fushimi Inari taisha located on the same rail direction, see #14). I am not so much of an animal person, but my husband definitely is, and he pushed me a bit into feeding the deers with him, and I ended up liking it (not crazy liking it, but liking it). The stroll in the park is wonderful, it feels like crossing an enchanted forest that leads to this stunning temple, the Todai-ji, very impressive both in size and in terms of cultural heritage. There is a giant Buddha inside, and it used to be told that a man or woman who could crawl across a hole the size of the Buddha’s nostril could actually achieve a sort of mega wisdom. Nowadays, there is a hole in one of the temple’s pilar, in which tourists can try crawling through. Honestly speaking, the attraction is more for fun than anything else, because all tiny skinny Asian tourists can cross very easily!! And few of us Westerners can… Not sure all of them Asians actually achieved the level of wisdom mentioned in the Buddha story, hahaha!
- Try all sorts of delicious Ramen. Yummy, yummy, yummy and super yummy! You can’t stop me about Ramen!! I used to love them before travelling to Japan, now I’m just purely and simply in love with this dish. And there are so many sorts, with so many different flavors and different quality broths, Ramen is a pure winner! Here on the pictures, you can see that we tried mainly 3 types. One is a ramen bowl of regular egg ramen noodles, vegetarian with a soft-boiled egg. Another one is ramen with clear broth and thin Hida beef, a delish. And the last one is a Soba ramen bowl (made of buckwheat noodles) in which we dipped delicious shrimp tempuras! I loved them all unconditionnally, but I found the soba really interesting because it’s filling but it doesn’t get your stomach look full nor feel like “swollen”.
- Visit the castle of Himeji. It really is a pure beauty, and one of Japan’s symbols of greatness. We loved the visit of the castle, we loved the view from the top floors over the city, and we loved the shopping arcade in Himeji because it was the cheapest of our stay in Japan, and stores had a super wide choice of porcelain and earthware dishes, which are items I absolutely wanted to buy before returning back home. Among other items, I bought Ramen bowls! Again, it is very easy to access Himeji, it’s a two hours train journey from Kyoto with the Shinkansen, and on your way back to Kyoto, you can even make a stop in Kobe!
- Try the famous Kobe Beef. Yes, you must. I mean, you came all the way here, so you must try this absolutely unique beef. It might cost you the value of one arm, one leg, both eyes and a kidney, but you must. You can’t visit Kobe, the town of the worldwide known and reknown Kobe beef, and not have some. Okay, I exaggerate a little bit. It’s not cheap, but restaurant owners know and understand tourism well enough to adapt their menu to their clientele. You can choose different grade meats, as well as different weight pieces. I would not say all budgets can buy Kobe beef at the restaurant, but most would, thanks to these menu options. For those who prefer a quick tasting at a street stall, be happy to know that the price will be lower (around 1000 yen for the quantity on the picture below) and the quality is amazing as well. There’s no cheating in Japan. Vendors would loose face if they served bad quality product. Kobe’s most interesting area is Chinatown, and this is where everybody goes for Japanese Kobe beef (yep, weird, but that’s the way it is…), and of course you can try all sorts of delicacies, all of them beside the Kobe beef being Chinese food though (but delicious and cheap).
- Wear comfortable shoes to climb up the site of Fushimi Inari Taisha and get a great city view from the top of the Kiyomizu-dera. In Kyoto, you will get your fair share of emotion, visiting some of the most stunning sites, such as the Fushimi Inari Taisha, where thousands of torii show you the way to the top of a hill (torii = traditional gates, here they are all orange). Words can’t explain the feeling. It was a dream for us to walk under the torii; personnally, I felt like I was in a Kill Bill movie, and that a wise man with a long white beard and big white eyebrows would suddenly appear (even though he is Chinese in the movie, but anyway…). As the Fushimi Inari is a bit outside of the city, if you want to remain inside Kyoto you will not be disappointed by the wide choice of touristic sites, starting with the Kiyomizu-dera from which you can get several interesting views over the city, or over some other minor spots of the site itself, located on the downside of the hill.
- Admire lovely girls dressed up in beautiful kimonos at any time of the day or night all over town in Kyoto. We noticed that tourstic sites often are particularly flooded with girls wearing traditional Japanese kimono. They come and pose for pictures in fashion and style. Not only they wear kimono, but they also have their hair done, and a perfect make-up. From their overall appearance, one can understand the effort these Japanese girls put in being beautiful. One also can imagine this is the effort of a whole family for the beauty of its girl. The kimono often is homemade, or tailor-made after being carefully discussed and thought through. Getting dressed can’t be a single person performance but the art of a family gathering around her. Same for the hair and the make-up. Sometimes, there is no other special occasion but the visit of a touristic site. Sometimes, they just hang out with girlfriends. Sometimes they are out on a date and their man wear a yukata (light kimono) in Summer. Sometimes, they go out for lunch with their family. And sometimes they are Chinese tourists renting kimonos to do like the Japanese ladies!
- Shower and relax in a traditional Onsen and wear the Yukata as the Japanese do. In every inn we went, we were lent some yukata (light kimono) that we were suggested to wear when preparing to go and bathe in the Onsen, the public bath. An onsen is a shared hot bathroom for the guests of the inn (or the family at home). There is a special protocol that we are required to follow when going for a shower. You can never go in with clothes on (leave them in a basket in the pre-onsen room), and you can’t use towels to hide any part of your body, inside or outside the water. Naked you will be, then. When coming in the room, start by filling the bucket with the hot water from the bathtub, and pour it all over your body twice or three times. Then, go to the shower area. Sit on one of the little stools and thoroughly wash your body and hair. Make sure to rince all soap and shampoo. Then go inside the bathtub and relax! When in the end I felt too hot, I often went for a last shower session and rince my body with only cold water. I guess I wouldn’t do that if it was Winter though.
- Have fun in Akihabara and Shinjuku districts of Tokyo. These definitely are typical places in Tokyo for having fun, manga-wise, or karaoke-wise. In Akihabara, the electronic and manga disctrict, prepare yourself for a travel on a different planet. And when you go to Shinjuku for dinner, don’t forget to hang out in the bars of the Golden Gai, this back area of small streets full of fun little bars in which the weirdest karaokes sometimes take place!
- Visit the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. To finish off this post, I will let this final picture speak for itself. It looks so perfect and pure that no words are necessary. We enjoyed this place a lot!
When are we going back ?! :) I hope you enjoyed my post, please feel free to comment and share your experience.
Created and Written by Sophie Rebibo-Halimi. © 2017 All Rights Reserved.