HilaryStyle’s Top Ten Cities!

#gargoyleNew York, Paris, Tokyo… there are so many amazing cities in the world, and lucky me, along with my family, I’ve had the opportunity to visit quite a few of the greats! Of course, not everyone agrees about which of them deserve to be on the Best List even among family members, which we discovered one evening over dinner during a recent visit to Paris. The boys and I thought it might be fun to take the conversation a step further and make a Top Ten Cities list.

Spoiler Alert!

Paris didn’t make the list and neither did Tokyo!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved visiting both cities and given the chance would go back to both of them repeatedly, in fact I’ve been to Paris on three separate occasions, but others in the family didn’t agree, so they didn’t make the list. I know some reading this list might say, we’ve left off important cities, or personal favorites, but before you do, let me explain that in order to be considered each city had to meet two important criteria:

  1. All four of us had to have been there personally.
  2. The vote had to be unanimous.

Many places I personally consider great didn’t make this list which begs the question, “What makes a city great?” The answer is it’s different for everyone, which is why we had to have the honorable mentions list, and still a few of my faves didn’t make it.

Just nominating a city wasn’t enough. Each of us also talked about what made us love a particular place and or why we didn’t. This was such a fun activity that we carried the conversation/debate on for multiple days after. So without further ado…

Our Top Ten Cities in order are:

  1. New Orleans, Louisiana – Overall character, culture, food & art!#stlouiscathedral
  2. London, England –  All the Royalness, history, museums, Corinthia cocoa, & an overall easy place to be as well as a great jumping off point for getting to other great places!#changingoftheguard
  3. Barcelona, Spain  – Living the Barcelona lifestyle, food, & culture!Barcelona
  4. Los Angeles, California – The vibe, the fashion, the beach…come on, it’s LA!Los Angeles Trip  Edits-9142
  5. Edinburgh, Scotland – a beautiful and mysterious place filled with fascinating history, the nicest people, all surrounded by  faded splendor and crumbling beauty!Edinburgh
  6. New York, New York – The big city feel, museums, food, the smells both good and bad!#New York
  7. Kyoto, Japan – Centuries of tradition, food, beauty, a truly magical place!#5000toriigates
  8. Rome, Italy – Ancient history, gelato around every corner, fantastic coffee and quite possibly the most beautiful holiday decorations we’ve ever seen!#christmasinrome
  9. Amsterdam, Holland, Netherlands – a beautiful easy city filled with lovely people. A place where people feel free to be themselves!
  10. Lisbon, Portugal – Beauty everywhere you look, a unique character, yummy treats and friendly people make Lisbon a place we’d like to see more of!

Honorable Mentions:

As I mentioned above there were a number of places that one or more of us wanted on the Top Ten List, but sadly didn’t make it, still we felt they deserved a mention, so here they are:

Seattle, Washington – After all, there’s no place like home! Not to mention, quirky tourist attractions, close proximity to natural wonders and fun museums! If only Tim enjoyed rainy days…

#emp

Half Moon Bay, California – Tim’s happy place, great fish and chips, almost guaranteed wildlife sightings and high surf are just a few of the things that draw us to Half Moon Bay on a regular basis. If only there was a little more going on in this lovely little town, though it’s a great place to get pumpkins!

Half Moon Bay

Tokyo, Japan – The world’s largest city, an amazing place with many contrasts and unique cultural differences that deserves a lot more exploration. By far Simon’s favorite city!

#mtfuji

Disneyland – Okay, not technically a city, it’s definitely high on my personal list and it is the Happiest Place on Earth, so I’m making an executive decision and throwing it on!

#disneyland60thanniversary

What’s on your list?!

Japan! Adventures in Cuisine!

#shrimp

#tempurawithsaltHeading to Japan for the first time there were many unknowns, but whether or not we would enjoy the food wasn’t one of them! In fact, considering how much we all love Japanese cuisine, loving it was pretty much a guarantee!

While it’s true that most cuisines are more authentic when eaten in the countries they originate from, I can now say (after our visit) that Japanese restaurants in America do a pretty great job. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some pretty big differences. Eating Japanese food in Japan is absolutely different then eating it here in the states for a number of reasons.

You’ll find a variety of choices on the menus in the US, but in Japan most restaurants specialize in only one cuisine, so if you want ramen and sushi you’ll need to visit two different restaurants. The variety and type of food served is also quite different, for example you’ll be hard pressed to find horse sushi or tempura lotus here in the States. The choices can seem quite bizarre and even downright exotic.

A lot of restaurants have plastic food displays or photos of food on the menu, however this is no indication of the quality of the establishment, the chances that the food will still be great are high! In fact, these practices are quite common and can prove quite helpful when faced with trying to read a menu written in only Japanese.

Converting ¥ to $ A Cautionary Tale

Based on our love of Japanese cuisine, Simon had come up with a list of foods that he wanted to try while on our trip. We had done a pretty good job of checking everything off the list, with the exception of one item, his favorite, tempura.

Ginza

It was our last night in Japan and as is our usual habit we were wandering aimlessly looking for a place to eat. We were in Ginza and though there were retail stores aplenty we were having trouble finding a tempura restaurant.

When we finally found an acceptable place with an available table we didn’t think twice… In hindsight I should have noticed that the Yelp listing had multiple dollar signs, but we were very hungry, and not a little impatient…Oops!

The restaurant, Ten-Ichi, while not a dive didn’t seem all that remarkable either, and along with the menus we were given aprons, which added to what seemed like a fairly laid back atmosphere. The menu was a list of what seemed to be all-inclusive dinners for very reasonable prices, and Simon and I chose the same meal, Tim picked another and Elliot still another.

The waitress spoke no English and we spoke no Japanese. We placed our order by pointing at the menu. Immediately she shook her head “no”. What was she trying to tell us? We had NO idea! Each meal included multiple courses; maybe it was too much food? We pointed at Elliot and shook our heads “no” as if to say, “does he need his own meal?” We signaled back and forth a few more times and it seemed like everything was worked out. Our order had been placed…

What Seems too Good to be True is TOO Good to be True.

Our meal was fantastic! It was hands down the best meal we had the entire trip! Tempura in Japan was incredible and nothing like anything we’d in the States. The batter was light as air, the house made sauce was divine, and we learned a new way to enjoy tempura, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Heavenly! It had been the perfect way to end what we all considered the vacation of a lifetime! A good thing too, because…

A short while later after we’d enjoyed our meal and a few glasses of wine, the check arrived… I wish I had a photo of the look on Tim’s face when he told me the check was the equivalent of just about all the dinners we’d had the entire trip, combined! Yes, that is right! All the dinners! Combined!

We’d made a mistake converting the ¥ to $ and instead of my entree being $19.00 it was really $190.00… you get the idea! It was lucky for us that this restaurant accepted credit cards, as many places in Japan do not. Sticker shock aside, we all agreed that not only was it truly the best meal of our trip, but maybe the best one we’d ever had!

Later, when I spoke with Simon about it, he said, he’d known all along just how expensive the entrees were, but because earlier on I’d asked him to let Tim and I worry about the expense of our trip, he assumed we knew what we were doing. Clearly we did not!

Lessons learned:

  • Wear your glasses when reading the menu!
  • When mom says yes to a $190.00 dinner entree she doesn’t really mean it because obviously she isn’t wearing her glasses and doesn’t realize what she’s agreeing to! Say something!

The good news:

  • Not only will we never forget this fabulous meal, but it I can’t think of a single meal we didn’t love while visiting Japan!

A Word About Credit/Debit Cards

Keep in mind many places in Japan do not accept credit cards and if you’re coming from the United States there is a high probability that your credit and debit cards won’t work in most ATMs. ATMs located in 7-Elevens should work, but getting cash can be difficult and it’s a good idea to plan ahead, so you don’t run out.

Japan! Experiencing Hanami!

#sakuraskySpringtime in Japan is breathtakingly beautiful, so It’s no wonder that people come from all over the world to see it! The cherry trees are in bloom and they are everywhere!

Ueno Park

#sakurablossomsWalking among the thousands of trees in Tokyo’s Ueno Park you can’t believe how lovely it is! Magical really! The branches are overflowing with blossoms and they stretched out over our heads creating canopies of pink, white and blue sky. I didn’t know where to point my camera first! Of course everyone else wants to take a photo too, so you have to be careful to look where you’re going. There aren’t just thousands of beautiful trees, but thousands of people too! As many as two million people might come to see the blossoms in a given year.

This activity is called Hanami which literally translates to “flower viewing” and it is popular activity for all ages. So much so that the sakura blossom forecast is reported by local weather forecasters. Additionally, there are websites you can visit that will help you determine the different bloom forecasts depending on where and when you plan to visit. And of course there are sakura festivals in many places. It’s quite popular for the younger generations to picnic under the blooming trees and while we didn’t do this ourselves we did have the opportunity to walk through the park and see the literally hundreds of people picnicking! It did look fun!

Beyond The Blossoms

#gojoshrineThere are many things to see and do in Ueno Park beyond hanami.  We discovered fabulous food stalls, a shrine, the remnants of a giant Buddha statue, beautiful torii gates, the Ueno Zoo and swan boats in Shinobazu Pond. There are also a number of large museums, but even with multiple visits we simply ran out of time.

I’m not sure if the food stalls are in the park all year round, but there were many food options when we were there and Elliot did his best to hit every single one! He wanted to stop at practically every place and try something new. Many places in Japan don’t take debit cards or credit cards and we actually ran out of cash before Elliot was done eating!

Shinobazu Pond

Shinobazu Pond is located within Ueno Park and there is a lovely island right in the middle. During the sakura festival the pathway leading there is lined with even more food options! We found some yummy desserts and then visited The Bentendo Temple. I read that the temple is dedicated to the Goddess of good fortune, wealth, music, and knowledge. I like it!

There is a pedal boat ride in the pond and the boats are colorful swans! The boys really wanted to go for a ride, but the swans only held three people at a time, so I spent some time taking photos of the shrine and more blossom photos while they pedaled around with Tim. Perfect!

 The Ueno Great Buddha

#uenobuddah

Located just up the hill from the main avenue of cherry trees is the face of what was once a very large statue of Buddha. This was the second great Buddha to stand in this spot. The first one was destroyed in an earthquake in 1647! The second one was also heavily damaged in the 1923 earthquake. Only the face remains because the rest of the 3.6 meter tall statue was melted down to make weapons in WWII.

The Ueno Zoo

#TokyoZooAs we often do when traveling with the boys we visited the zoo!  We had a nice afternoon and saw a few animals that we’ve never seen in any western zoos. That was fun!

Japan! Tokyo… A City of Many Contrasts

Yoyogi Park Tokyo Shibuya

Japan is a land of many contrasts. It’s a place where centuries old traditions and cutting edge modern technology come together and coexist side by side in harmony. This is part of what makes Japan such a special and magical place. Nowhere did this seem more apparent than Tokyo. The modern architecture and bright lights of Ginza are just steps from the Imperial Palace, The ancient buddhist temple of Zojo-ji resting in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower, and the softness of the pink and white cherry blossoms up against the hard grey metal of the city’s skyscrapers are just a few examples of the many contrasts we saw in our travels. Where else do you find 5 star restaurants with their world-class food displayed out front in the form of realistic plastic models?

Here’s a look at a few of the ancient and modern sights we saw while in Tokyo. Some of them were in the same place!

Senso-Ji Temple

#sensojitempleLocated in the Asakusa district the Senso-ji Temple is Tokyo’s oldest temple. The approach leading up to the entrance of the temple is called Nakamise-dori and it is lined with souvenir shops. They are selling exactly what you would expect Japanese tourist shops to sell, fans, Godzilla toys, kimonos, buddhist scrolls, candy, mobile phone straps and a lot of other “stuff”.

This was our first stop in Tokyo and in hindsight I wish this wasn’t the case. The Temple itself is beautiful and surrounded by many other places of interest, but this is a very popular tourist destination and with more than 30 million visitors each year it was extremely crowded! The combination of junky stuff for sale and the large crowds was somewhat off-putting and because of it I think Asakusa was probably my least favorite neighborhood. In fairness It was our very first stop and we were still adjusting to jet-lag. The Asakusa district was largely destroyed by bombing in WWII and a lot of it was rebuilt in the 50s and 60s. It definitely has a 60s-ish vibe to it.

Meiji Shrine

The Meiji Shrine is located in a large forest adjacent to one of Tokyo’s biggest parks, Yoyogi Park. I really enjoyed this! It was raining quite heavily the day we visited, but we chose to walk through the park anyway. We originally hail from Seattle, so a little rain won’t stop us! The cherry blossoms really stood out against the grey skies and with all the tall buildings surrounding the park it was really quite beautiful.

Dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, the Meiji Shrine was first built-in 1920 and is relatively new compared to some of the others we visited. Beyond visiting the shrine itself the surrounding gardens have many things to see as well. We wandered through a tea garden, saw royal fishing ponds, and the Otorii Gate which is the largest of its kind in Japan. Walking along the pathway you’ll find a large display of both sake and red wine barrels which were donated in honor of the enshrined deities. We were also lucky enough to see a Shinto wedding taking place during our visit!

When visiting shrines it is polite to pay your respects. You do this by performing a series of actions that are independent of religious beliefs, but show your respect to the sanctity of the place. Once I got the hang of these rituals I rather enjoyed completing them.

A funny side note: It was just after our visit to the Meiji Shrine that I stumbled upon the Harajuku District. I had my mind set on visiting the Rag & Bone Store and knew it was “nearby”. We never actually located the shop, but it was while we were wandering aimlessly, okay lost, looking for it, that we found Takeshita Street which was probably one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip!

Zojo-ji

Zojo-ji is a Buddhist temple in the Shiba neighborhood of Minato. It sits in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower. Founded in 1393 the Temple has been in its present site since 1598, long before the Tokyo Tower was in existence! On the day we visited there was a parade taking place on the street leading up to the Temple gates. The contrast of the people dressed very traditionally with the very modern looking Tokyo Tower in the background made quite an impact on me. I love how even with the introduction of new and modern ideas sprouting up all around the people still hold their traditions close.

Jizo Statues

While exploring the grounds of Zojo-ji we came upon an unusual garden. Row after row of tiny little statues all dressed up with flowers and other cheerful items placed around them. The statues represent the unborn children of Japan. Parents who have suffered a loss can chose a statue and decorate it. Often the parents will leave a little gift for Jizo, the guardian of unborn children, to ensure that they are brought to the afterlife.

It was the last day of our Japan adventure and the cherry blossoms were just starting to fall from the trees. Like snow flurries in the air and a light dusting on the ground. The timing of our trip couldn’t have been more perfect!

The Tokyo Skytree

On our last night in Japan we visited the Tokyo Skytree, a broadcasting tower and tourist attraction, located in the Sumida district. However, we decided we were too tired and cold to make the trip up to the observation deck. As of 2011 it was the tallest tower in the world and based on the description of the tower it’s clear that the many contrasts of Tokyo and Japan are not only accepted by the Japanese people, but embraced! The Tokyo Skytree was designed to represent a place where tradition and the future can meet. It is a very modern structure which has been designed with centuries of tradition in mind.

TOKYO SKYTREE is designed in an original color, “SKYTREE White”, representing harmony with the surrounding scenery, its name and the design concept: “The creation of city scenery transcending time: A fusion of traditional Japanese beauty and neo-futuristic design”.

Japan! Kawaii Means Cute & Other Japanese Cultural Phenomena!

#kawaiiBeyond unique scenery, ancient temples, and the many bright lights of Tokyo you’ll find that Japan is overflowing with other fascinating cultural experiences. Toilets with self lifting lids, Kawaii or Japan’s cute culture, and unusual snack foods are just a few! We found surprise and delight around just about every corner!

Kawaii

#tamagoman

The word Kawaii means cute, adorable, or lovable and is a major part of Japanese culture! It’s everywhere, painted on airplanes, bank logos, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, and even affects personal appearance and mannerisms.

Kawaii is also a very popular fashion look! Unlike many other cultures where women often want to look more glamorous or sexy, many young women are wanting to appear just the opposite. Trying hard to look and sound as sweet, young and cute as possible.

Takeshita Street, located in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, is a pedestrian street and a great place to see many examples of trendy Japanese fashion. Wandering around you might see Sweet Lolita, Gothic Lolita, Kawaii, and Cosplay. Many of these styles which seem more like costumes to Americans are not unusual as everyday attire for the young people in Japan. You’ll see women wearing what look to be little girl dresses complete with lace collars, petticoats and even parasols. I especially loved seeing the fun makeup and accessories and have even adopted a few of the fun ideas I saw during my visit!

Other popular things to do on Takeshita Street besides “seeing and being seen” are shopping and eating crepes. Though there are many crepe shops, the lines can be long. The crowds of Harajuku Girls are thick and they are moving fast. The day we visited It was raining incredibly hard and every single person had an umbrella! The moment we stepped into the street it was like being swept up into the tide and it was all we could do to “get over” to the side again and catch our breath! Not only was this an incredibly fun place to visit, it was truly a moment I will never forget!

Hello Kitty


#peekabookittyHello Kitty is everywhere in Japan! All the places you’d expect her to be like toy stores and clothing shops and many places you wouldn’t. Ancient medieval temples and shrines, yep, she’s there! Lingerie shop, check! Florists, food carts, the side of airplanes, she’s there too. She even has her very own shop in the airport. There isn’t anything you can’t get with Hello Kitty on it.

Pokemon

#gottacatchemallOf course with two boys in our house there was no way we were going all the way to Japan, the birthplace of Pokemon, and not going to the actual Pokemon store. There’s really not too much to say about this except that it was a dream come true for my boys and as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we always try to make sure the boys get to pick some activities of their own while on vacation. Of course we picked up some Pokemon swag while there, Pokemon Pocky, a new lunch box, various coloring books and spent quite a long time just browsing around. If you have boys or girls who like Pokemon, good luck getting out of this one! 😉

Kit Kats

#kittokattoThe Japanese people love Kit Kat bars in fact believe it or not they are the number one candy in Japan! The name Kit Kat sounds very similar to a Japanese saying, “Kitto Katsu” or “Kitto Katto” which is a good luck term meaning “you will surely win” and it is often said to students before a big exam. The Kit Kat bar is so popular that not only does it come in all sorts of unusual and regional specialty flavors, but recently an actual Kit Kat shop was opened in Tokyo. The little shop is located on the dessert floor of the department store Seibu. They have limited flavors available at the shop so if you’re on the hunt for unusual flavors you might fare better at convenience stores or other shops which sell candy.

The boys and I decided that it would be fun to bring back as many flavors as we could find! We were on a mission! By the time our trip ended we had located 8 different flavors: cinnamon, green tea, strawberry, cheesecake, dark, chilli pepper, pudding, and sakura green tea. We brought them back and had our friends over for a Kit Kat tasting party! Everyone was pretty surprised at how much they liked all the flavors. The two favorites were pudding which we actually heated in the toaster oven and strawberry. Tim occasionally travels to Japan for business and at times brings us back new flavors. Our most recent tasting was rum raisin.

Vending machines

#vendingmachineseverywhereThere are more than 5.52 million vending machines in Japan! 5.52 MILLION! WOW! That’s one per every 23 people! Most of them sell drinks, but you can buy just about anything from them! We saw a bread vending machine which was pretty weird and cool! Some restaurants require that you choose your entree from a vending machine and then bring your ticket to the server. This isn not an indication of how good the food will be!

A few days after arriving in Japan we realized that not only is getting food “to go” not really a thing, but there aren’t really any trash cans on the sidewalks. It’s considered rude to walk around eating and drinking so you’ll find that most vending machines have trashcans next to them as well as a spot to stand and drink or eat your purchase.

Lost In Translation

It’s a good chance that when you’re in a place where there is almost no english spoken or written you’re going to find a few places where things were “lost in translation”. We didn’t see too many examples of this, but we had a good natured laugh at  the few we saw which were pretty tame.

Japanese Toilets

#supertoiletJapanese toilets are really quite something and while I don’t have any personal photos of this particular subject, it is definitely worth mentioning! We did encounter a few places with squat toilets where there was little more than a hole in the ground (this seemed to be more common in men’s rooms as I never saw it), most of the time the toilets went way beyond standard and bordered on downright fancy. Some even had sensors that knew when you entered the room and the lid would automatically raise, while others had buttons for “fake flushing sounds” and also doubled as bidets complete with dryers. Even the public restrooms in the parks we visited had heated seats. I’m not sure I need all those other bells and whistles, but (no pun intended) I sure appreciated the heated seats!

Face masks

When visiting Japan you’ll notice that many people wear surgical face masks in public. When we first arrived it seemed very obvious and foreign to us, but after a few days we got used to seeing it everywhere and it became a normal. There are many theories about why the Japanese people wear them. We asked our Kyoto guide Kenzo and he gave a number of reasons, allergies, the spread of germs, and not wanting to be social were just a few.

Japan! Tokyo… No Wasabi Kudasai!

#theshymountain

With over 37 million people Tokyo is the most populated metropolitan area in the world! It is beyond vast! You might imagine with that many people it would be loud, hectic or dirty, but it’s exactly the opposite! Unlike many big cities I’ve visited you don’t hear horns honking on the roads or see garbage on the sidewalk, and although there is definitely hustle and bustle the people are incredibly respectful of one another. There was an overall feeling of nice pretty much everywhere we went!

Tokyo is broken up into 35 Special Wards and each ward is then broken up into districts or neighborhoods each with their own name and distinct feel. I found that the lines were blurred when talking about some of the more notable wards or districts. for example, Shinjuku is a Special Ward and a district/neighborhood… We had the opportunity to stay in two different neighborhoods during our visit, Shinjuku and Ginza, and visited many more!

Shinjuku

Prior to our trip I read a lot about the different areas of Tokyo trying to work out where would be the best place to stay. Because it is such an immense place it wasn’t immediately clear to me which area of town would best suit our needs. I wasn’t sure I should pick blindly, so I picked somewhere I had heard of before. I picked the Park Hyatt Tokyo from the 2003 movie Lost In Translation. Yep! I chose our hotel based on a movie. It turned out to not only be one of the nicest and loveliest places I have ever stayed, but also one of the friendliest!

#thankyouwikipediaThe Park Hyatt is located in the Shinjuku Park Tower which is the second tallest building in Shinjuku. The hotel occupies floors 39 – 52 providing spectacular views in all directions! Our room was on the 43rd floor! We were able to catch a glimpse of the elusive Mt. Fuji, but within 10 minutes it was gone. No wonder it has the nickname The Shy Mountain! That was the only time we saw Mt. Fuji the entire trip. I read that if you’re in good shape you can climb Mt. Fuji in one (very) long day. I’ve added that to my bucket list!

#yumThe rooms were decorated beautifully and were very spacious. When we arrived in the room there were toys and amenities just for the children and for all of us there was a lovely tray of strawberries on skewers with various dipping sauces. Another plus for the kids was the large heated pool located on the 47th floor! Don’t worry if you forgot your swimsuit… they’ll rent you one!

We ate at three different restaurants in the hotel and they were all excellent, but definitely on the pricey side. The breakfast was a buffet and in classic SimonStyle he was into trying the more unique items offered. He discovered he liked okayu or Japanese rice porridge quite a lot, its sort of like oatmeal (which of course he won’t eat at home). Unlike Americans the Japanese people don’t generally go out for breakfast. We discovered this one morning while doing our usual let’s wander around aimlessly for hours looking for food with no idea where we are going. So, if you like a traditional breakfast you might consider grabbing it in your hotel before you head out for the day!

Tsukiji District

#freshfishLike most tourists visiting Tokyo we made a trip to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market! The biggest fish market in the world, its famous for the fish auctions which take place there each morning at 5:30 am! We weren’t up for running to see a fish auction at what in my opinion amounts to the middle of the night, so we took our time and turned up at a more reasonable hour. There was still plenty going on by the time we got there and we didn’t feel that we had missed out on anything.

We spent the morning exploring all the different offerings, fish of course, but also spices, dried goods, vegetables, flowers, housewares and more! We sampled a number of different food items and  met a very nice man who tried to teach us a few Japanese words, and gave the boys bags of miniature dried shrimp to munch on. Yum?

Nō Wasabi Kudasai

#sushiTim knew of a tiny little sushi restaurant located right near the fish market and after seeing all that fresh fish for sale we were definitely ready for some lunch! A few things to keep in mind when eating in Japan:

  • The majority of restaurants in Japan specialize in only one type of food, i.e.You won’t find tempura, sushi and ramen in the same establishment.
  • Sushi isn’t less expensive in Japan.
  • It’s really hard to explain “no wasabi please” when you don’t speak Japanese

Once the kids realized all of the above they learned to just wipe off the wasabi and go for it. The variety of sushi offered was definitely more diverse in Japan and we had fun trying new things. Elliot’s favorite was salmon roe! Both my boys love Japanese food and on day one of the trip Simon made it his mission to not only eat in as many different types of restaurants as he could, but also that he wouldn’t use any “American” utensils, only the traditional Japanese utensils provided to him! That’s my kid!

Japan! Three days in Kyoto!

japaneseumbrellaTo say we all loved Kyoto would be an understatement. It’s a wondrous place, magical really! The history, the people, the food, the beauty… three days was definitely not enough. In true HilaryStyle I wanted to make the most of our time and we saw as many things as possible each day. We definitely needed that Shinkansen (bullet train) ride back to Tokyo just to get in a rest!

Our visit took place during the height of the cherry blossom season and finding accommodations even four months out was next to impossible! I highly recommend booking a room as soon as you know you’re going.

#watazenryokanWe stayed at the Kyoto Watazen Ryokan, which is a traditional style Japanese inn complete with tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and in room meals. It is considered bad manners to enter the communal baths with any type of clothing on, so I was grateful our room had its own bathroom complete with tub, toilet and shower. Staying in the ryokan was quite a different experience and the kids really enjoyed it! When we arrived the room was made up like a little living room complete with table and cushions. Each evening while we were out and about our room would be transformed into a sleeping area with futons and blankets made up all in a row. We had a lot fun trying out the kimono style robes and other Japanese amenities provided.

The Kyoto Watazen Ryokan was a little bit tired, but the people were incredibly friendly and the service was perfect. It is located in an excellent area of Kyoto within walking distance to many sites!

Day One

Nishiki Market

#octopuslollipopWithin walking distance from our ryokan was the lovely Nishiki market! A fabulous place filled with stall after stall of beautifully displayed food, spices, utensils and more. Though many of the things on display were a complete mystery to us we had a lot of fun and sampled quite a few of them. Octopus on a stick wasn’t on that list! All of us really enjoyed wandering through the market and it was definitely worth visiting!

Kiyomizu-dera

#kiyomizuderaKiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist temple which was built around 780. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Most of the year the temple is only open in the daytime, but because we were visiting during cherry blossom season there were special evening hours. The gardens are illuminated and the effect of the lights on the thousands of pink and white cherry tree blossoms is breathtakingly beautiful. The gardens are also lit in the autumn when the maple leaves begin to change. The main temple building is incredibly large and sits precariously suspended over the hillside on which it is perched. Incredibly the main hall and stage were built entirely without nails! There are lovely views of Kyoto in the distance. There are many buildings on the site and we were able to wander through the gardens and among the buildings, but due to our nighttime visit we weren’t able to go inside.

Day Two

Hiring A Guide

#kenzosatoDeciding what to see in new places can be challenging and while we do make a general outline of what we might want to see I usually don’t like to reserve tickets or book tours ahead.  We like the ability to change our minds if need be. However, I made an exception in Kyoto. Not only did we have a language barrier to contend with, but we also had very limited time in Kyoto. I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss anything worthwhile and at the same time we would get a general lay of the land. This made such a difference on day three when we were again on our own!

Booking in the high season meant that we had to hire the guide for a minimum of six hours, but they were great about working with me on an itinerary that was family friendly and met our family’s individual needs.

Our guide was an incredibly friendly man named Kenzo Sato. He is a native of the area and had been giving tours for seven years. We all really enjoyed his company and I think the feeling was mutual! The day before we set out I had compiled a list of places I definitely had to see while in Kyoto and many of them turned out to be on Kenzo’s list!

#kenzoslunchHe not only planned our itinerary, but arranged transportation from place to place and took us to one of his favorite restaurants for lunch. Before we parted ways at the end of what was a fabulous day our guide was kind enough to go over my ideas for day three.

How did we find our guide? Lonely Planet! I was reading their Kyoto guide and I discovered that the author Chris Rowthorn operates an independent tour company! How perfect! The book is great, so the tour company will be too! And it was!

Fushimi Inari-Taisha

#5000toriigatesFushimi Inari-Taisha is just one of around 80,000 Shinto shrines throughout Japan. Amazing! I am sure there are many beautiful ones. However, I doubt many people will disagree with my opinion that this one really stands out as something particularly special! It’s famous for the literally thousands of vermilion torii gates lining the pathways which lead you through the woods and to the top of Inari Mountain. There are many smaller shrines along the way and at the top. It takes about two hours to get to the top and while it is a steady climb it’s not terribly difficult and even Elliot had no trouble. Along the way there are a few places to stop and get a bite to eat or a drink.

Once you reach the top you can either go back the way you came or head down the backside of the mountain which is much quieter with less foot traffic. It is still very beautiful, but there aren’t as many torii gates. We walked through some natural bamboo forests and came out into a lovely residential neighborhood.

Ema

Torii gate ema

When visiting Shinto shrines you will find stands with little square plaques of wood or other shapes called ema. They are available for purchase. The idea is that you can write your wish on it and leave it there in the hopes that the deity of the shrine will grant your wish. All types of wishes are made. We purchased one, but instead of making a wish we had Kenzo write our names on it in Japanese and we brought it home to hang on our christmas tree.

Tofuku-ji Temple and Tofuku-ji Zen Garden

#We were able to walk through residential neighborhoods on our way to visit the Tofukuji Temple. The gardens here were incredibly beautiful and a real contrast to the simple beauty of the grounds outside the walls. Each side of the building has a different type of garden. We didn’t spend much time here, but it is quite an impressive sight and definitely worth a look! I would love to come back here too see the autumn leaves which it is known for.

This Zen temple is the oldest and largest in Kyoto and the Sanmon gate, a national treasure, is the oldest Zen main gate in Japan.

Yasaka Pagoda

#pagodaLocated near Kiyomizu-dera the Yasaka Pagoda is all that’s left of the Hokanji Temple. It’s quite an impressive sight, but due to time constraints we weren’t able to go inside. It dates back to 589!

Chion-in Temple

#chionongardensThe Chion-in Temple was under construction during our visit, so we were unable to go inside, but we were able to wander the temple grounds. The temple bell is gigantic weighing 79 tons! It is a Japanese custom to ring all the city’s bells 108 times at midnight on New Year’s Eve! This giant bell is no exception even though it takes an entire team of monks to ring it!

Shoren-in Temple

 #shoreintempleShoren-in Temple located a short distance from Chion-in Temple was an incredibly tranquil and lovely place. The gardens were spectacular and if you have a chance they are open for nighttime viewing. If you make an offering you can ring the temple bell and with a little help from Kenzo, Elliot was happy to do so!

Gion District

#geishaThe Gion District is a well-known Geisha district in Kyoto and I had read in my Lonely Planet guide that Shinbashi-dōri in Gion is the most beautiful street in all of Asia. I was determined to see it! I haven’t seen a lot of Asia, so I don’t have a lot to compare it with, but I can say it was definitely one of the most beautiful streets we saw while in Japan! In recent times traditional Japanese attire has become more popular with the younger generation so you do see a lot of people dressed in kimonos, seeing an actual Geisha is more rare as they don’t tend to just hang out on the street. We did “catch” sight of one on her way somewhere!

Day Three

Kinkaku-ji Temple of the Golden Pavilion

#templeofthegoldenpavilionKinkaku-ji temple is one of the most popular buildings in Japan and it absolutely deserves to be! Not only is it located in a stunningly beautiful setting, but the top two floors of the building are covered in gold leaf! Yep! The outer walls are entirely covered in gold! Due to its extreme popularity you should expect large crowds, but if you are patient you can get some pretty great photos!

Ginkaku-ji Temple of the Silver Pavilion

#silverpavilionGinkaku-ji was built by the grandson of the Shogun who owned Kinkaku-ji. It was give the name Silver Pavilion because it was eventually supposed to be covered in silver foil. This was never realized and the temple has remained “unfinished”. The gardens here are stunning with a variety of features including a sand garden, moss gardens and a wooded area.

The Philosophers Walk

#philosopherswalkThe Philosophers Walk is a pedestrian path that follows a cherry-tree-lined canal in Kyoto it’s very close to Ginkaku-ji and other sights. It’s especially beautiful during the cherry blossom season. There are a number of worthwhile shops and restaurants nearby which we poked in and out of. I picked up a few neat little souvenirs to bring home.

Eating in Kyoto

#sushi

We really enjoyed the food in Kyoto! I wish I could tell you which restaurants we liked best, but the truth is that we almost never knew the name of anywhere we ate. I will say that I can’t think of even one place where we didn’t enjoy the meal! Just take a chance!

Japan! Planes, Trains & Automobiles!

#shinjukuWhile we have done quite a bit of traveling in the West, the boys and I had never had an opportunity to visit Asia. Last spring we were fortunate enough to visit Japan. This was a lifelong dream of mine and it turned out to be everything I had hoped it would be!  We all agreed it was the best family vacation we’d ever been on and the trip of a lifetime!

#noideawhatitsaysI won’t pretend the idea of traveling to a place where we wouldn’t be able to understand the language at all or even recognize the letters wasn’t a little bit nerve-wracking. This would be a completely new experience! A true adventure! We knew everything might seem and feel different, but that was part of the excitement. In many ways it was what made this trip so magical!

Unlike many western countries you won’t find that a lot of people speak English. In fact just the opposite, however we didn’t find this to be a problem and with the exception of one funny incident in a restaurant where we paid a bit too much we got along just fine!  We learned to say a few basic words before we left and did our best to use them whenever we could!

When To Go

#holycherryblossomsAfter 15 years of talking about going to Japan we wanted to make sure we got it right! We had 10 days to explore and decided on two cities, Tokyo and Kyoto. After researching the best time of year to go we settled on spring so we could see the cherry trees in bloom. If we ever get a chance to go back I’d love to see the autumn leaves which are supposed to be breathtaking! Tokyo has well over 50 major neighborhoods and they’re all special. It was hard to settle on just one so we split our time between two neighborhoods 4 nights in Shinjuku and 3 nights in Ginza with an additional 3 nights in Kyoto. If you’re planning to go during cherry blossom season book everything as early as possible and for the best choice of hotels I recommend booking at least 6 months in advance!

Getting Around

Planes/Trains

minipilotsWe flew into Narita Airport which is, depending on the mode of transportation you choose, 60 – 90 minutes from Tokyo. After researching trains, buses and taxis we found taking the train to be the best and most convenient option for us! We took the JR Narita Express which is covered by the Japan Rail Pass. The taxi was by far the most expensive option as you’ll have traffic to contend with on your way into the city.

Do keep in mind that the lines to get through customs upon arrival can be quite long, so it was probably around three hours after we landed that we finally made it to our hotel. That was a long day!

Shinkansen

If you’re planning to visit more than one city on your trip I strongly recommend you consider the Japan Rail Pass. The JR Pass must be purchased prior to arriving in the country as they are only available to non-residents of Japan visiting for tourism. The most economical way to get from city to city they can also be used in city on certain train lines and for transport from the airport and back. They are offered in 7, 14 and 21 day options.

Purchasing the JR Pass is easy. We purchased ours through a local travel agency who specializes in Asian travel. It can take a few weeks, so contact them as soon as you’ve decided on your travel dates.

When you arrive at the airport take your JR Pass vouchers to the JR Pass Office where they will be exchanged for the actual passes. We found the people were incredibly helpful, friendly and they spoke english. We were able to get all the information we needed to catch the JR Express into the city as well as information about taking the bullet train (Shinkansen) to Kyoto. Depending on your plans you’ll want to look into getting reserved seats on the Shinkansen as well as information about which station to catch the Shinkansen depending on which city you’re planning to visit. Keep in mind that the trains always leave on time. Plan on being on the platform a few minutes prior to whatever time you are expecting the train to arrive or you will miss it.

What would have been an 8 hour drive to Kyoto was only a 2 hour 20 minute bullet train ride! If you are hungry there are light refreshments on the trains. At first, due to the language barrier, we were a little shy about ordering from the refreshment cart, but hunger and curiosity got the better of us and we were able to point at what we wanted which worked out fine.

Taxis

#nowthatsserviceWhile we used the trains to get back and forth to the airport and to Kyoto, we found we didn’t use them much within the actual cities. We chose to take taxis from place to place. This isn’t the most economical way to travel, but it’s very convenient and a great way to see a lot of the city!

Hailing and using taxis in Japan is quite different from any other city I’ve been to. While hailing the cab is the same, there are some other major differences. For example, you don’t actually open the taxi door by yourself! It’s opened and closed remotely by the driver. It took us quite a while to get used to this and it’s considered poor manners to open and close the door yourself unless you exit or enter the vehicle from the right side.

If you don’t speak Japanese it is perfectly acceptable to give them your destination address on a piece of paper or we showed them where we wanted to go on the map. Tipping is not common in Japan and in most situations it can be considered offensive. However, If you decide to tip the driver it’s appropriate to just round up when paying the fare.

Green means stop and red means go! Yep, a red symbol lets you know the cab is available and a green one lets you know it’s occupied.

 

Helpful Words

Japanese is an incredibly complex language, but we thought it might be nice if we could learn to speak a few words. We really enjoyed trying to speak as many words as possible and you could tell that people really appreciated our attempts even if they might have been a bit botched. Of course it’s always nice to be able to say hello and thank you and of course excuse me was extremely helpful many situations!

arigato = thank you

arigatougozaimasu = Formal Thank You

sumimasen = Excuse Me

ohayougozaimasu = Good Morning

konnichiwa = Good Afternoon

sayonara = Good bye

Stay tuned for more about our amazing trip to the Land of the Rising Sun…