Tokyo is a thrill to visit, but a bit of an interesting place for a honeymoon. If you find sharing a tiny bed by night while elbowing through throngs of people by day romantic, it’s definitely the spot for you! If your significant other is 6’4, you may want a bigger bed.
We were relieved to step off the train in Kyoto to find that we may now have some room to stretch. Our hotel, Sakura Terrace’s The Gallery, was only a block away, and was absolutely beautiful. The ground floor featured rotating wooden walls that left it open to the street next to shallow pools of water. The middle of the building was open, letting in a bit of what seemed to be Japan’s constant light rain. There was also a firepit burning, giving off a sauna-like smell, and a lounge singer every single night. Now that’s a honeymoon vibe!
We chilled out in our hotel room (which seemed HUGE), and googled places to eat dinner. We landed on a place called Sushi Iwa, which was rumored to be Steve Jobs’ favorite sushi ever. Like ignorant American tourists, we wandered over there in sneakers and flip-flops without making a reservation.
They were nice enough to let us in (probably because it was a Wednesday at like 9 p.m.) and serve us an amazing tasting menu. We chit-chatted with the chef as he filleted fish and waxed poetic about visiting L.A. It was awesome.
The next day we hopped on a train to visit Fushimi Inari, aka the fox shrine. There, we got very acquainted with the color orange (this would be a constant in Kyoto). As we walked through orange gates up a mountain, we found that the more we lost our breath, the more we also lost other tourists. We tried to go as far as we could with our busy schedule, but only made it about halfway. If I go back to Japan I hope to spend a whole day climbing that mountain!
On our way down, we stopped for lattes at an amazingly beautiful cafe situated between old cemeteries and a tranquil pond. I briefly fantasized about quitting my whole life to work at this cafe.
We also took advantage of the orange everywhere to take some cool new profile pics. Ugh, narcissistic millennials.
That night, we tried Neil’s Birthday Dinner take 2 at a kaiseki restaurant. If you don’t know what kaiseki is, watch the n/naka episode of Chef’s Table. It explains it way more beautifully than I can. We did a tasting menu in a beautiful restaurant up in the hills of Kyoto. I would recap it as being a bit like doing a tasting menu at Victory 44. You fill up on tiny bits of god-knows-what in the first 7 courses, only to have kobe steak placed in front of you. You think, “I wish I had known kobe beef was coming. Then I would have skipped eating those snails …” Those kinds of meals expand your palate greatly, and we were lucky to get in!
The next day, we visited Nara, known to some as the “hidden gem” of Japan. Full of domesticated deer and ancient temples, it’s a major sacred spot for Buddhists.
Nara’s Todai-ji temple used to be the epicenter of Buddhism in Japan, so much so that Japan’s capital was moved out of Nara to reduce the influence of Buddhism on the country. It’s Daibutsuden temple features Japan’s largest Buddha statue.
I cannot properly communicate how HUGE this Buddha statue is. It was truly breathtaking. As not-very-religious Westerners, we tried to imagine the significance of seeing this amazing landmark to someone who had been raised Buddhist. I can imagine it is a rite of passage that you never forget.
The building also features a pillar with a hole in it that, if you squeeze through it, supposedly grants you enlightenment in your next life. (What patience! I feel like Americans would want their enlightenment NOW! And would then use it to write and sell diet books.)
Wandering around Nara often meant that we were surrounded by more deer than people. This was very different from being in Tokyo.
There were plenty of temples to visit and beautiful stairs to climb that gave us amazing views of the countryside. We felt generally ignorant about everything we were seeing because there were no signs in English and our mobile wi-fi had stopped working.
We decided to get some deer cookies and see what happened. A big buck whose horns had been removed followed Neil for awhile. Upon realizing Neil wouldn’t give him a cookie, the buck did a deep throat gurgle hiss puke thing at him that I think is deer speak for “fuck you!”
Eventually he zeroed in on some more pleasant deer to give his cookies to.
Hanging out with throngs of deer was quite a strange experience. Deer seem very mysterious in everyday life, occasionally jumping out to prance in front of your car or visit your backyard. In Nara, they are brought down to earth a bit, all with plenty of fleas, pooping here and there and literally waiting in line at cafes in the hopes of getting human food. We’ll never forget our deer friends though, as odd as they were.
The next day we visited Arashiyama, which is a quick train ride out of Tokyo. We got off the train and onto a mellow walkway full of little shops and gifts. Our goal was to visit Monkey Park, where we heard we could hang with monkeys. Would it be like our deer experience, full of begging animals and poop? Time to find out.
The first thing we discovered was that Monkey Park required a genuine hike up a mountain. It took us about 25 minutes and plenty of sweat to get up there, but once we made it we enjoyed quite a view.
There were probably more monkeys than humans in this tranquil spot. The monkeys themselves were as mystical and pleasant as I imagined tiny forest monkeys to be, sometimes dropping in to swing on a pole or sit philosophically on a roof.
At the very top of the park we could see where the monkeys go to chill, and we watched a few groom one another. So wild. I felt a huge sense of happiness being on a Japanese mountain surrounded by monkeys. Would recommend for sure!
Then we visited Arabica coffee, which is a hip cafe that had an hour-long line. We enjoyed our coffees by the river with some sushi that in retrospect was aimed specifically at tourists.
Then we visited the Tenryu-ji temple. It had an incredibly beautiful garden surrounding it. Fun fact: in this garden is a bathroom where you have to purchase toilet paper before you go in. (I found bathrooms in Japan to run the range from squat toilet to luxury heated seat that makes a flushing sound to cover your own body sounds.)
This garden leads you right to the Sagano Bamboo Forest. It was eery and beautiful but did not involve darts being shot between kung-fu masters at lightning speed, like various movies had primed me to expect.
By this part of our trip, we had become quite enamored with the Kyoto station. It features a beautiful outdoor staircase that lights up to tell stories, and the whole building opens up into multi-floor experiences that split in the middle. There’s even an insane skywalk that connects the station’s two sides high above the ground.
On the second-to-highest floor they have their own ramen street, called Ramen Koji. We got very into having a delicious $30 ramen dinner here.
On our last day in Kyoto, we visited Kiyomizu-dera temple. On our way, we marveled at the athleticism needed to visit some of the most popular tourist spots in Japan. We basically had to walk up a steep hill for quite a ways to get there. Once we got to the top, we were greeted with some incredible views.
After that, we decided to visit Osaka. We had heard that Osaka is a bit more laid back and wild than Tokyo, so we were eager to see what that meant. We went to the Dotonburi area, which Neil described as Venice meets Times Square. We had an incredibly delicious dinner of fried-everything-possible-on-a-stick and then went to a bar called Bar Freedom. There, we talked to some locals who confirmed that Osaka is indeed chill as fuck.
On the train back to Tokyo, I gave in an got a Happy Meal. A Happy Meal was less than $5 in Kyoto, and was packaged and handed to me within about 30 seconds. (I recall getting a Happy Meal in Brazil and Spain to be quite an ordeal that cost around $10, but maybe I’m wrong. Will have to try in other countries and report back.)
We got off the train and rushed to the Ghibli museum, which we got tickets to in some kind of amazing fluke of Neil being online at just the right time. To prepare for this visit, we watched many of the movies of Hayao Miyazaki, my favorite so far being Spirited Away, which is incredibly weird.
I snuck this photo of Totoro stained glass inside before being politely told, “No pictures.”
The outside looks like a Gaudí building, which I loved.
Then we wanted ramen AGAIN (can you believe us?) so we went to a ramen place that was open all night called Ichiran. (We rarely get it together to eat dinner before 10 on vacations for some reason.)
After that we went to a hip bar called Bar Track, which had a library of records on the walls. We had to pay an $8 cover fee, but for that price we got to eat as much as we wanted from their jars of sundry snacks. Neil found something close enough to Raisinettes for his liking, so $8 well-spent.
We spent our last two nights in Tokyo at the Park Hyatt hotel, which you probably know as the hotel from Lost in Translation. How did we afford to stay here? Open a Hyatt credit card and you get two free nights anywhere in the world. Even here. Just do it!
We were nervous that they would be annoyed with us because we were staying for free but they treated us with a hospitality that we’ve experienced only from the best of grandmas. The above is the view of Tokyo from our room, which we couldn’t get enough of.
We couldn’t afford to eat in the general Park Hyatt restaurant, but we did have breakfast at their 2nd-floor delicatessen both mornings, which was amazing. The baked delights were out of this world. (Have I mentioned the giant grapes in Japan, which are incredibly expensive/delicious? Miss them.)
We also ordered room service one night because we were starving at like 1 a.m. and it ruled.
Here’s another insane creation from that delicatessen.
Oh and another hotel room view.
It was hard to part ways with this amazing hotel and country, but we soothed ourselves by remembering we have a wild dingo at home.
Thanks for the great times Japan! We’ll be back.