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Honeymoon part 4: Tokyo

And here we are on the last leg on the trip, Tokyo! Actually, it was the first and the last leg of the trip. We flew into Tokyo and pretty much went straight to bed the first night, and the next day we managed to get a little sightseeing in before we had to get on the Shinkansen bound for Osaka.

We took a train out to Mitaka to see the Studio Ghibli museum! I don’t know if you guys know this but I am a huge Hayao Miyazaki fan. He is one of Japan’s greatest animated film directors. You may know of some of his work, like Ponyo and Spirited Away, but there are many many more too.

We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the museum, but we got a few out in the gardens. Here’s Jeff sitting on one of the cubes from Castle Laputa from the movie Castle in the Sky.

And the gentle robot…

One thing we had trouble with in each city was adjusting to using the subway. The system is really pretty easy to understand once you get the hang of it. Basically you find where you want to go on the map and it will tell you how much it costs to get there, then you just purchase tickets at that price and you can travel to anywhere within that price range.

The trouble happened when there weren’t any English maps around and you had to find your stop on a map like this…

There were a couple of times where we would have been totally stuck without an iPhone to look up the Kanji character for the stop we wanted. Surprisingly, we had this problem in Tokyo most often. I would have thought that the Tokyo subway would be covered in English maps since so many foreign people are there on business, but we got hung up a few times.

It’s still a very efficient system. The trains really do run exactly on time all the time and everything is clean and orderly.

We saw the famous Hachiko statue outside the Shibuya subway. Hachiko is a symbol of faithfulness. He waited outside this subway for his owner to return from work each day, but the owner died while away and Hachiko waited here each day for nine years for him to return as he had so many times before.

It’s now a popular meeting place to get together with people because it’s so recognizable.

We did a lot of shopping in Shibuya…

And we even stopped at a cat cafe! I know it sounds weird, but cat cafes are a part of Tokyo culture we wanted to experience. Often people are not allowed to have pets in the apartments in Tokyo, so they pay to come spend time petting cats elsewhere!

These little guys were going nuts watching the leaves rustle on the trees outside! They were all very well cared for and sweet cats. We spent about 20 minutes there petting cats and sipping drinks. There was a guy taking a nap in one of the chairs. I think it’s common to use cat cafes to take naps, it’s cheaper than a hotel!

Let’s not forget the food!

We had yakitori and beer several times. Here’s an assorted plate of chicken parts, I loved the gizzards!

And we had crab-stuffed mushrooms, conch, and even more gizzards…

One day we went for Thai food at a Thai buffet restaurant called Mango Tree Cafe. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a buffet, but this ended up being one of the best meals in Tokyo!

We heard about a great tempura restaurant that we had to try. The tempuras were served along with vinegar dipping sauce, grated daikon, and three flavors of salts.

There were also some pickled turnip tops to put on the rice, a salted fish roe cordial, and a miso soup with tiny clams. Everything was spectacular washed down with copious amounts of sake!

We did manage to make it to Tsukiji fish market on one of the last days for a sushi lunch.

There was so much wasabi under each piece of fish that I was tearing up. The chef gave me a free ice cream cone to cool me off!

Then we checked out all the foods for sale in the market…

Our breakfasts were usually junk food. We always woke up starving from all the walking we did on the previous day and just needed to get energy in us quickly. I probably ate 6 or more of these red bean filled buns…

But just because we had sweets for breakfast doesn’t mean we didn’t have room for dessert!

We bought some hand-made mochi in a confectionery. One green tea filled with red bean paste and the other plain with whole red beans.

I loved this sweet waffle stand we found in a subway. There were at least 20 different flavors to choose from.

I got green tea with pieces of strawberry, mochi, and red beans mixed in and Jeff chomped down on a mocha flavored one. I wish we had found these sooner so I could have tried other flavors too.

The morning before we had to leave for our flight home we set out to do some shopping, but for some reason everything was closed. So instead, we headed over to Shinjuku Park and I’m so glad we did.

Around the park there were several trees with bandages and crutches. It made me happy to see this care taken to heal these broken trees, the reverence and respect for nature was refreshing.

What a peaceful way to end our trip. I hope I can have a garden even half that beautiful some day.

I hope you enjoyed looking through these pictures as much as I have. I have guest posts lined up for the next two days until we get back from Seattle, then I’ll make sure to fill you in on what we did there too!


Honeymoon part 3: Kyoto food

It’s undeniable that Kyoto is beautiful, but we didn’t just sit around staring at mountains all day, we actually enjoyed some really great food and fun! In fact, I’d say Kyoto had the best food of the whole trip, even better than Osaka which is known for it’s food culture.

You wouldn’t know it by this weird breakfast though…

That was the first thing we ate in Kyoto and thankfully it wasn’t indicative of the food to come. We went to a little breakfast place near our rental home and couldn’t read a word on the menu so we just ordered the first thing on it. What we got was a hollowed out piece of toast filled with a salad on top of mashed potatoes! It was good but a very strange thing to have for breakfast.

The coffee was pretty good though. Love the teeny tiny cream pitcher!

We had a really amazing lunch in the Gion district. We passed a restaurant that smelled like toasted rice and couldn’t resist. This place specialized in cooking rice in donabe pots and serving with various accompaniments.

Jeff got ochazuke, which is rice with fish and tea poured over.

I had a creamy dish of tofu and wheat gluten with tempura vegetables on top. Meals are almost always served with various pickled and salted things to put on top.

We had amazing ramen in a bar in an alley along the river. Jeff got a pepperd one with chicken dumplings.

Mine was pretty standard pork ramen. I can’t express enough how delicious the eggs you get in a bowl of ramen are. The yolk is really salty, soft, and gelatinized. Tastes extremely chickeny.

Jeff had to try the raw egg rice bowl with salted kombu. He fell absolutely in love with it and I make it for him for breakfast sometimes.

Of course we had sushi. We got caught in the pouring rain and ducked into a sushi restaurant for a few hours while we waited for it to pass. Not a bad way to pass the time! And yes, you really can tell the difference in quality. Even the cheap sushi we had at chain restaurants in Japan was light years better than even the most expensive stuff in the states.

Speaking of sushi, it’s hard to decide what the best meal we had in Kyoto was, but the traditional Kyoto-style sushi at Izuju was definitely one of them.

There was sake, of course….

And hot, grassy green tea.

We ordered a combination of three Kyoto classics: inarizushi (rice wrapped in fried tofu skin), sabazushi (vinegared mackerel sushi wrapped in kombu), and the jewel bako (multi-colored box-pressed sushi.) Kyoto-style sushi is very distinct from sushi you typically think of. It usually has more rice, more vinegar, and these tightly molded shapes are very common.

This was the best bite, eel and tamago! I love the fluffy souffle-style tamago like this. I definitely prefer Kyoto-style sushi. Oishii!

The next contender for best meal was the sukiyaki we had in a restaurant on Pontocho. Pontocho runs along the river with the backs of all the restaurants lining the water and all the entrances facing a narrow lantern-lit alleyway full of energy.

We didn’t know what we wanted for dinner one night and being exhausted we just stumbled into the first restaurant we saw. We were led upstairs to a tatami room with low tables and pillows to sit on.

We started with a few appetizers. This one is tsukune, a grilled chicken skewer that you dip in raw egg. I didn’t really feel like the egg added anything, but I went with it.

We also had a bundle of tempura leeks with vinegar dipping sauce and seasoned salt that was spectacular.

The main course was beef sukiyaki. Raw beef slices, tofu, wheat gluten, vegetables, scallions and sauces are added to the tabletop stove and it cooks in less than 5 minutes!

I really don’t know how to put into words how good this was. And if that wasn’t enough, after we had eaten much of the sukiyaki, we were given some cooked udon noodles to soak up the rest of the delicious sauce!

We were forcing ourselves to keep eating this past fullness because it was just so incredible. While we were slurping up noodles, a pair of exquisite geisha entered the room to entertain a table of high-rollers. An agent caught me staring at the beautiful geisha and offered to let us meet them and have our picture taken!

We were very lucky to meet Ayano and Momiyuki, who are famous in Pontocho. We also got to meet the client they were entertaining, a famous shamisen player!

I will remember that night forever. We almost didn’t even go in that restaurant and if we hadn’t we would have missed out on that wonderful memory.

One thing I will never forget about Japan is the sweets. You couldn’t walk 10 steps in any direction without bumping into a bakery or sweet shop. I especially loved the delicate and expertly crafted little confections known as wagashi. This sweet red bean and flaky pastry wagashi was one of my favorites.

And I bought this box of soft mochi filled with sweet red bean and dusted with cinnamon on the way back down from Kiyomizu-dera with the intent of bringing some home. They barely lasted two days!

One thing I noticed about eating in Japan is that where a restaurant is located says almost nothing about the quality you’ll find there. We had some the best meals of the trip in subways!

This amazing lunch was had in the Kyoto subway station on our arrival and it was amazing. I had box-pressed sushi, noodles, tempura, and seaweed salad. The soba-cha, or buckwheat tea we were served was the most delicious tea I’ve ever encountered. I still dream about it.

Jeff got this huge tower of soba noodles with toppings and tempura and boiled vegetables. He actually ate all of it!

Upon leaving Kyoto to head back to Tokyo for the last few days of our trip, we stopped in another subway restaurant that we had heard a ton of buzz about: Tetsu.

Tetsu is a ramen joint but they do things a little differently. The noodles are served separate from the broth and you dip the noodles in it and slurp them up! There was a funny sign on the wall explaining just how to do it.

This was the richest, porkiest, most amazing ramen ever! There were huge chunks of pork belly in it and the noodles were topped with crunchy caramelized garlic. We made a mess slurping up all that porky goodness and washed it down with lots of beer.

OMG looking at all this again is making me drool. I still find myself daydreaming about some of this food from time to time.

Next up: Tokyo and the end of our trip!


Honeymoon part 2: Kyoto

Ah, Kyoto. If I could live out my days there I would.

Kyoto embodies what I have always loved about Japan and hoped it would be. It is a smaller city with one foot in modern times and the other deeply rooted in Japan’s traditional past.

There, you can still find ornately dressed geisha, or geiko as they are called in Kyoto, bustling down lantern-lit alleyways towards whatever nightly appointments they may have to entertain clients in much the same way as they would have 100 years ago or longer. You can still attend a traditional kabuki theater performance, which is not some modern reproduction but the real thing unchanged. Many structures are the original wood the were constructed from ages ago, though possibly restored after the war. Kyoto is what you think of when you think of old Japan – a zen rock garden in contrast to Tokyo’s excitable urban maze.

We stayed along this river, the Kamo-gawa, in a loft-style vacation rental that was part of someones home. It was so wonderful to wake up every day to the sounds of the river and the elementary school across the street calling the local kids to class. This was the view out our window…

Our rental home was about a mile north of the nearest subway station, so any time we needed to go anywhere we had the pleasure of walking along the Kamo-gawa for 20 minutes or so. It was so much fun to hop across the rocks to reach the other side.

The Kamo-gawa meets with another river and lots of people go there to hop across the rocks and meet with friends. We even saw a group practicing tai-chi!

Everything around us was so unbelievably beautiful. We loved peeking into neighborhood gardens as we strolled through the Shimogamo area.

Kyoto is full of old temples and shrines. We had plans to see many of them but didn’t have the time. The one I knew we couldn’t miss though was Kiyomizu-dera. It is a huge wooden temple sitting high up in the mist-covered mountains overlooking all of Kyoto.

It’s a long hike up to it, but totally worth it for those veiws.

We also made it to Yasaka Shrine. Another gorgeous and ornate temple complex.

There were many things we wanted to do in Kyoto that we never got around to, and as much as I wished we were able to see and do everything, I’m glad for the experience we had. Moving at a slower pace gave me the feeling that we weren’t just tourists bustling between this attraction and that. There were times when Jeff and I were walking down the stone streets or along the Kamo gazing at the mist hanging on the mountains and we truly felt like locals. Maybe some day…

Tomorrow: What we ate in Kyoto, it needs a whole post to itself!