Hi again! We thought it would be worth sharing our holiday trip with everyone after receiving requests for stories and photos from our time abroad. After 18 months back in California, we took our first international trip to Asia, spending one week in Japan and one week in Palau.On December 12, we hopped on a flight with our dear friends, Georgeanna and Mike, to spend the week exploring and eating our way through Japan. Our first stop was Tokyo where we booked an AirBnB for a few nights in Ebisu, a trendy and happening neighborhood. After checking in and getting settled, we went to what would be one of my favorite places, a restaurant/bar arcade featuring tons of little food stalls jumbled together that forced us into the thick of Japanese culture.We were winning our fight against jetlag but were ready to eat! The menu was in Japanese and our server knew little to no English so we all ordered the only thing we could remember in Japanese – sashimi. They definitely understood this as plate after plate of amazingly fresh sashimi was delivered to our table.Après dinner, we walked around the neighborhood, stopped in at a local bar for a couple drinks (surprisingly one of the only places that wasn’t closed for a private holiday party) and finished the night with fried octopus balls and a night cap. Fried octopus balls (takoyaki) are fried pieces of dough with chunks of octopus inside – two thumbs up!Our first night in Japan was a super success and we promptly passed out that night, recouping lost hours from the 17 hour time change from California to Japan.
The next morning, Georgeanna and Mike went for a run while we went to pick up some trip necessities, i.e. this facemask. We rendezvoused at a recommended ramen shop in Ebisu called Afuri. This was the first of several trips to a ramen restaurant and the process was as follows: enter the building, select and order what kind of ramen you want from the machine in front and then take the ticket for your order and hand it to one of the cooks behind the counter to make.Half the time, these machines said absolutely nothing in English or featured pictures too hard to make out so we’d usually stand there and all stare at the machine thinking that we’d eventually understand how to read Japanese. Someone would typically notice our confusion and would come to explain each option. These translations weren’t always perfect so the experience was something like ramen roulette, but the result was almost always delicious! At Afuri, Mike and I had a spicy tomato-based broth while Chris and Georgeanna enjoyed a more traditional light chicken broth. It was a solid start to our ramen experience in Japan.From Ebisu, we walked through several neighborhoods stopping every now and then to check out the local grocery store scene or window shop until we reached our primary destination, the neighborhood of Harajuku. Harajuku is known for its wild fashion and pop-culture craziness. Weird things happen here.
Crowded is an understatement. The two main streets were packed with a sea of people. You didn’t really have to walk because you were almost guided along by the general population of people moving in your same direction. Chris and Mike had a lot of height on everyone else and were easy to find!People watching was good, but the Engrish was GREAT. Full disclosure, not all photos below are from Harajuku.On the west side of Harajuku is a large park featuring the Meiji shrine, gardens and several torii (a traditional Japanese gate typically found at the entrance or within a Shinto shrine). We took a free walking tour from an English speaking guide who touched on the Japanese Shinto religion, how to respectfully visit the shrine by adhering to their traditions and explained all their many customs including how you wash away impurities before entering the main shrine area.That evening, we walked through Shibuya crossing, the famous pedestrian crossway where people converge in organized chaos.Back in Ebisu, we went to a lovely traditional dinner featuring multiple courses at a restaurant called Ippo and finished the night at Bar Martha – one of the coolest bars I have ever been to, but super pricey to boot! It was like a speakeasy but modernized with walls of records and music paraphernalia. Sorry, no photos.
The next morning, we woke up early to hit up the main tourist attraction in Tokyo, the Tsijuki Fish Market. We debated waking up at 4AM to make it to the live tuna auction, but decided against it for fear our internal clock would easily get confused if we continued to mess around with our sleeping patterns.
We did get there in time to walk among the many stalls in the outer market and the main seafood market before parking ourselves in line to wait for our first taste of sushi in Japan.There are two sushi restaurants within the fish market itself and both are only open for breakfast. People start lining up as early as 5AM! We were in line around 8:30AM and shortly afterwards, Mike and Georgeanna decided against waiting and left in search for other food options. There were a few times in our 90 minute wait when we really wished we would have gone with them. One of the reason it takes so long is because the restaurant is comprised of just two sushi counters with 12 stools each. Once inside, it’s a very tight squeeze.We opted for the chef’s selection of the day which was squid, eel, amberjack, egg, sea urchin, raw shrimp, medium-fatty tuna, fatty tuna, a tuna roll, a roe roll and we bought a piece of extra lean tuna for good measure. Best sushi of our lives for sure. All so fresh and completely worth the wait. When in Japan, right?We met back up just in time to ride the train to the Tokyo Sky Tree to meet Mike’s old family friends from New York – Saori and Taka. Tokyo Sky Tree is the tallest tower in the world and offers a great vantage point of the sprawling city.Afterwards, we went for okinominyaki, a Japanese style pizza or pancake. This specific one was packed with seafood, drizzled with different sauces and was delish! Plus the company was great, Saori and Taka were so nice and it was great to get a true local perspective.Not far away from Tokyo Sky Tree was Senso-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo, which is also surrounded by a pagoda, other shrines and temples. It was here at Senso-ji that I received my omikuji or written fortune. Here’s an excerpt, “Your wish will not come true. The lost article will not be found. The person you are waiting for will not come. It is bad to make a trip.” Good traveling karma, eh?!That night, we met our friend Dayne, who has been working in Japan for the past few months, in Shibuya for a night on the town. We started at a beer bar and ended up where any typical group of friends would go in Tokyo…karaoke!!! This was my first time singing karaoke and we sang our little hearts out in our private room overlooking the streets of Shibuya. Karaoke lasted a couple of hours but the party continued well into the morning.The next day hurt. Thanks to Dayne, we managed to make it to an awesome gyoza (Japanese dumpling) restaurant that completely hit the spot. It was late afternoon when we all slowly made our way to Yebisu brewery.
That evening we went for yakitori (grilled meat on a stick) in Drunken Alley, a lantern-filled lane where teeny tiny restaurants fit just 4-8 occupants at one time.We crammed into a charming but quasi-claustrophobic spot and were served our dinner of tofu and radish, chicken thighs, chicken wings, chicken hearts and pork. All so tasty and served by our very own private chef!A bar and some roadies later, we ended the night at Gabi Gabi, a little bar famous in Tokyo for catching live music. It was open mic night for amateurs and we got a good dose of local talent, the good, the bad and even some ugly. Pictured below with us was my favorite musician, a business man who came to jam and hear fellow musicians play. He was so good! Overall, a really fun night off the tourist trail.In the morning we parted ways with Dayne as he headed to the airport while we went to catch the shinkansen, or bullet train, to Osaka for the day. So great to see you across the world, Dayne. We had such a great time with you as always!
Traveling at roughly 155 mph, it took about 3 hours before we arrived. We were moving so fast, look how warped the photos look when we tried to take pictures out the window.The streets around Dotonbori in Osaka remind me of a mini Times Square…lots of signs and lights for restaurants, bars and shops all competing for your attention. We had to try some Osaka cuisine so we went for kushikatsu which is basically fried meat or seafood and vegetables on a stick that you dip in house made sauce. While good, it wasn’t my favorite meal in Japan but neither is deep fried food.That evening we met up with another one of Mike’s childhood friend, Daisaku, whom he hadn’t seen in 20+ years! Osaka has a lot of shopping malls and we walked through shop after shop selling everything imaginable.Dai’s family including his daughter and her friend joined us for dinner that night and they were so incredibly adorable!We went for traditional Japanese dessert afterwards, which was a sweet bean soup served very hot with a drop of mochi on top. Good but not something I see us craving in the future. The girls were so happy to have it though, it was like going out to ice cream for them. We ended the night at a bar owned by a friend of Dai’s, super cool and sleek with some very interesting beers and bar food. A really nice place to end our quick trip to Osaka!The next morning we made our way to Kyoto, just 15 minutes from Osaka by bullet train. We only had two days and one night in Kyoto so we checked into our ryokan or traditional Japanese guesthouse, got a few directions and were off exploring the city. Our first stop was what we continually referred to as the ‘golden temple’ but its actual name is Kinkaku-ji. We stopped for soba or buckwheat noodle soup at a local restaurant a few blocks away. This was one of Chris’ favorite restaurants in Japan. Hot soup on a cold day was the perfect combo – great find Georgeanna!It snowed an hour or two when we were in Tokyo but in Kyoto it really started to dump. It was so beautiful since we hadn’t seen snow in forever! The exception to this was when we went to our next stop, Riyoan-ji, or the zen rock gardens. As you can imagine, there wasn’t much to see except a few rocks in snow. Oh well, at least the surrounding gardens and grounds were still nice.From the rock gardens we took the local train to our last stop for the day, the neighborhood of Arashiyama.There’s a high concentration of temples and shrines here (and in Kyoto in general) that we took a gander at before heading to our real destination, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove for the festival of lights. The entire bamboo grove was lit up – so gorgeous! Our crappy photos don’t do the place justice.After our long day in Kyoto, we made our way back to our ryokan to thaw. As part of the room and board, you have access to the onsite onsen or spa. These bathhouses require everyone to strip down into their birthday suit (how appropriate as it was actually my birthday!) before showering and entering the hot tubs. There are separate rooms for males and females. No personal photos for obvious reasons, but I’ve included one below from our actual ryokan. These onsens were one of my favorite things about Japan! Photo credit: Google Images
We quickly went back to our rooms and changed into our provided yukata robes before heading to dinner.Included in a traditional ryokan experience is a very elaborate multi-course dinner or kaiseki. Food presentation was amazing. Everything was served on tiny plates or in little boxes and bowls. Most of the food was super tasty although we were never sure what we were actually eating which was most of the fun. Here are just a few photos of what we ate and a photo of the aftermath.We celebrated the day with hot sake, bottles of beer and lots of unknown Japanese delicacies – an awesome and very memorable Japanese birthday dinner!
At first, I was unconvinced that paying to sleep on the floor would be fun but the tatami mats were actually really comfortable and the ryokan was one of our Japan highlights. From the photo below, think I could pass as Japanese?Breakfast the next morning was very similar, lots of little Japanese dishes all beautifully presented and mostly tasty.We checked out of our ryokan and hit the streets for our last day in Kyoto. We took the train to the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine which is comprised of thousands of torii (word for gate, remember??).We spent a short time in the neighborhood of Gion, where you have your best (but still highly unlikely) chance of seeing a real geisha.We had time for one last meal in Kyoto and after what seemed like hours of searching, we finally found the perfect place. It was a local joint serving everything we wanted: udon, tempura and tonkatsu or deep fried pork cutlet. The restaurant owner had spent some time in the States and was so excited to have us as patrons and was genuinely curious about our travels and lives. It’s tradition for the eldest son in Japanese culture to take over the father’s work when he retires so instead of chasing his own dreams, he came back to Tokyo after working and living abroad to manage his father’s restaurant. The upside to his predicament is that the food was very delicious. He was such a sweet man who ended up leaving briefly to buy us all handmade Japanese postcards as a gift to remember our trip by!We headed back to Tokyo via the bullet train for our last night out in Tokyo. We checked into our hotel, Chris and I had a quick drink on the rooftop bar overlooking Shinjuku, picked up a roadbeer (drinking on the streets is legal) and headed to sushi for dinner with Georgeanna and Mike. This sushi place, recommended by our hotel, was awesome! Not as good as the sushi we waited in line forever for, but a very close second. Melt in your mouth sushi…can’t beat it and so cheap!It was our last night together in Tokyo and we had to go out with a bang. So naturally, we rented a private karaoke room. These karaoke buildings are just like hotels, floors with room after room available to rent by the hour. We were initially put in a room without windows and an awesome dolphin mural, but I requested to be switched to a room with floor to ceiling windows and multiple couches overlooking Shinjuku. This is where the magic unfolded.After getting our quick fix of karaoke, we went to a nearby area that has tons of super tiny bars. Much like Drunken Alley, these bars can only fit a handful of people at a time. The one that we selected was owned by a Japanese “Wayne’s World” lookalike.I won’t go into detail but things went downhill (or uphill depending how you look at it OR who you’re talking to) pretty fast after ordering drinks. We finally fell into bed early the next morning and had very little time before we had to check out of the hotel. Miraculously, I was able to get myself to the iconic Tokyo train station for some ramen. This sesame seed ramen soup might be my favorite from Japan and it literally brought me back to life!What do you do after a long night out? Well for me, I just eat all day long and that’s exactly what we did. We left our ramen lunch to go straight to dinner. We had a recommendation for a traditional Japanese steakhouse located on top of a butcher shop and it did not disappoint. The steak was like butter and it still makes me drool when I think about the food.This was one of our favorite meals and it was a perfect dinner to end our trip and say goodbye to our friends. We stayed at a hotel near the airport for our flight to Palau the next morning and they still had another day in Tokyo before flying back to the States. We had such a good time traveling with Georgeanna and Mike and experiencing Japan together. We know our trip was better because we had them with us. Thanks for all the amazing memories guys!!
A few things worth mentioning about our time in Japan:
- Whenever Chris would see a group of school children, particularly girls, he’d wave and smile or give them a shy wink which would set them off in a fit of giggles and make them go crazy!
- We were won over by the food. I originally thought we’d live off sushi and ramen which we were completely looking forward to, but as you can see from all the awesome eats we had, there was so much to try and the majority of it was awesome.
- Almost everyone thought I was Japanese and would start speaking to me in Japanese assuming I was a local playing host to my three American friends. This would happen all day everyday.
- Japan is just as clean as everyone says it is, if not cleaner. As a self-proclaimed germaphobe, I hate bathrooms but the toilets in Japan were so clean (and so smart), you didn’t have to touch anything – especially the toilet seats!
Japan definitely tops our lists of favorite places we’ve been and it far exceeded our expectations. We highly recommend a trip and to go now, the dollar is so strong against the yen (for example one piece of high quality and super fresh salmon was only 85 cents)!
While I’m not sure what the future of our blog holds, I do know that we can commit to posting once more about the final week of our holiday trip – our adventures in Palau! Stay tuned for more…