Japan is one of my favorite places in the world. When I heard my brother was planning to go, I bought my plane ticket on a whim. Since I had purchased a JR Rail Pass for two weeks, I knew I had to make good use of it! Prior to the trip, I figured out what major cities I wanted to visit so at the very least I knew what city I would be in every day. I jotted down a few vague ideas in my 'notes' app on my phone about specific places I wanted to check out... but nothing too comprehensive. I ended up figuring out most of my activities on the fly by using Time Out Tokyo and my phone web browser while walking around aimlessly. If you are travelling over the New Year's holiday, be sure to book your 'reserved seating' train tickets 2 weeks in advance if possible... practically everyone in Japan is travelling home to celebrate the new year.
Day 1 (in the air)
- SFO to Tokyo flight... watched the Life of Pi movie and screamed at the part when the tiger jumped out of the tented area on the boat, startling my neighbors on the plane.
Day 2 (Tokyo)
- Arrived to Tokyo, met a few interesting plane mates including a shoe designer and a girl named Eriko, that looked like a real-life anime character. She was adorable!
- Picked up and activated my 14 day JR Rail Pass at Airport and navigated my way (got lost) to the hostel.
- Activated my mobile hotspot upon arriving to the hostel and was determined to find ramen.
- First bowl of tonkotsu ramen at Kagetsu (10 minute walk from the hostel)
- Lodging: Khaosan Tokyo Ninja Hostel -- small dorm rooms, but fantastic common areas!
Day 3 (Tokyo)
- Woke up bright and early to see the Meiji Jingu and followed a friendly exchange student to pay respects to the Hachiko Dog statue in Shibuya. Read his story...it will move you!!
- Explored Tokyo with my sweet friend Akira, whom I had met in college during her exchange program.
- Shibuya D47 Museum - revolving exhibition themes that represent Japan’s 47 prefectures. I highly recommend this if you want a cultural deep-diving experience.
- Roppongi Hills: an impressive 54 story tower with an observation deck, the Mori Art Museum, a giant spider called "Maman" by French artist Louise Bourgeoise, luxury shopping, and dining.
- Katsu donburi for dinner
- Lodging: Khaosan Tokyo Ninja Hostel
Day 4 (Nagasaki)
- Tokyo to Osaka station to meet up with my brother, then onward to Nagasaki
- We bought the ever-famous castella sponge cake and wandered into Suwa Shrine as the sun set.
- It was Christmas day, and all the rage is to eat fried chicken...we stopped by a KFC store that was teeming with people to see if we could get a few drumsticks. The wait was an hour and a half! We ended up getting curry for dinner, and ordered two pieces dripping with oily Christmas cheer.
- A sweet potato truck made it's way down our street with a strange 'sweet potato song' projecting from loudspeakers. We stopped to buy some, despite still being stuffed from dinner. I took two bites and retired to bed-- full, happy, and dead tired.
- Lodging: Nagasaki International Hostel Akari, a homey and wonderful experience in a tatami room run by a cute family.
Day 5 (Nagasaki / Fukuoka)
- Breakfast at Yoshinoya (a huge gyudon chain) and had a bowl of negi gyudon.
- Nagasaki Ropeway to Mount Inasa
- Visited Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum and memorial. A somber but moving experience.
- We were also told we had to try some Champon too. I had the seafood deluxe champon, and it blew me out of the water! Noodles were amazing, seafood perfectly cooked, and the broth was delicious.
- Nagasaki to Fukuoka
- Wandered around confused, in search of tempting noodles. Spotted steaming dumplings and stopped on a bench to eat a few.
- Consumed ramen and gyoza at a tiny Ramen-ya, complete with a grumpy and austere ramen cook. I've noticed "American" gyoza is much larger than gyoza in Japan. Bigger does not mean better.
- Lodging: Fukuoka Hana Hostel - mini "hotel" style room equipped with a TV, desk, and bathroom. Located smack dab in the middle of a busy shopping arcade.
Day 6 (Fukuoka / Osaka)
- Explored the outdoor market in search of some fresh mentaiko (spicy marinated roe). I ended up purchasing some chirashi from one of the vendors for breakfast.
- Wandered through the Canal City Hakata mall to wait for the famous Ramen Stadium to open for lunch.. so many choices, but we had to go with Hakata ramen. Had a blast playing pachinko-esque arcade games.. not sure how it all worked, but it was fun!
- A life changing event: Hakata Ramen and a bowl of mentaiko over rice.
- Fukuoka to Osaka
- Takoyaki (octopus snack) time!
- Dinner a humongous "sushi robot boat" restaurant. Pick up your sushi from the automated sushi conveyor belt or order specialties off of a touch screen. Every 10 plates eaten earns you a chance at winning a mini toy. Why don't we have this back home?
- Lodging: Obachan’s House (grandma's house)
Day 7 (Kobe)
- Osaka to Kobe to meet up with Takahito, a friend I met in college during his study abroad program.
- Wonton soup at a popular noodle street vendor
- A specialized gyoza restaurant, is this real life? Shiso gyoza with a plum sauce.... yes!
- Hung out at a magic show venue, got a great demonstration, and practiced my broken Japanese.
- The only kobe beef item I ate was a croquette. I don't think I ate a real meal on this day.
- Visited Takahito's friend's bar for drinks and took the train back to Osaka.
- Got lost for an hour in the late into the night because Apple maps is the worst. Destitute, confused, and frozen, I made a final try by mapping Obachan's address using Google maps... BINGO!
- Lodging: Obachan’s House
Day 8 (Kyoto)
- Osaka to Kyoto
- Visited the Fushimi Inari Shrine and hiked all the way to the top...please advise against bringing your heaviest backpack...because I did it, and it was not fun. On the upside, we did meet the cutest stray cat in the forest.
- Street vendor takoyaki break.
- Dinner at a buffet displaying authentic Japanese food. Not among my favorites, probably because I'd rather just have noodles, but I was able to try a lot of different dishes.
- Lodging: Jam Hostel Kyoto Gion -- The room was basic and tiny, but the superb location in the Gion district made it well worth it. Also, the owners operate a sake bar so it's a great place to do some sake sampling.
Day 9 (Kyoto / Osaka)
- Explored the Gion district and ate some street Mitarashi dango for breakfast .
- Egg flower udon soup for lunch.
- Waited in line for an hour to experience the infamous Tsujiri Honten, for the best matcha ice cream parfait ever.
- Udon Noodle History Museum, and ate udon at their restaurant for an early dinner. I had to! They featured udon styles from all over the country.
- Attempted to visit several museums only to find out they were closed for the New Year's holiday... but it was a nice walk anyways.
- Kyoto to Osaka
- Chirashi bento for dinner.
- Lodging: Obachan’s House
Day 10 (Wakayama)
- Osaka to Wakayama to visit Tama the Station Master Cat ... I pressed my face against Tama's viewing window to get as close to her as possible. She's a lovely calico and she has an even better story about becoming a station master.
- Rode a strawberry AND Tama the cat themed train. My life is now complete.
- Wakayama ramen for lunch.
- New Year's Eve visit to Kimiidera temple, and got my "temple passport" book signed by a monk. Watched the last sunset of 2013 at the temple...it was magnificent.
- Zaru soba and negitoro-don for dinner.
- Lodging: Obachan’s House
Day 11 (Osaka)
- Rang in the New Year by visiting the Fujiidera temple, and collected another signature for my "temple passport" book.
- Tried my very first osechi ryori (traditional Japanese New Year's food)...and LOVED IT!
- Went to the Osaka Aquarium and ogled at the jellies and well-manicured exhibits.
- Sukiyaki feast at Obachan's house.... she special-ordered the marbled beef sent from the heavens. Enough said.
- Lodging: Obachan’s House
Day 12 (Osaka / Tokyo)
Day 13 (Tokyo)
- I got up at 5 AM to visit Tsukiji fish market, but it was closed for the holidays. There is a lovely shrine called the Namiyoke Inari Shrine right next to the fish market. I purchased a very special wooden dragon charm here.
- Stopped by the Tsukiji Hongan-ji because it was nearby and it was an enormously intriguing building.
- Wandered around until I realized I could catch the first act of kabuki theater (and afford it!) at the Kabukiza Theater.
- Sushi at Sushizanmai for lunch... burned my hand because I couldn't figure out how to operate the personal hot water tap for my tea. The elderly man next to me couldn't stop laughing. Glad someone had fun!
- Charlie Brown exhibit in Roppongi at the Mori Art Museum
- Ebisu Beer Museum -- also closed for the holidays, but it was an interesting area to walk around
- Nabemono for dinner -- I found this bland and quite possibly the only Japanese noodle dish I've ever eaten that I don't particularly like.
- Night out at Club Camelot which played an interesting assortment of hip hop and Taylor Swift.
- Inhaled a bowl of ramen at 4 AM with my eyes half closed. Caught the train back to the hostel at 5 AM. By the way, "going out" in Japan means you party from midnight (last train) to the first train at 5 AM.
- Lodging: Khaosan World Asakusa Hostel
Day 14 (Tokyo / Homeward)
- Spicy kimchi gyudon hangover breakfast at Matsuya (a big gyudon chain).
- Asakusa to visit the Sensoji Temple and watch an impromptu monkey show among the Japanese children. This area is PACKED with people! You can barely move around.
- Masudaya Toy Exhibit-- an impressive collection of Masudaya's vintage metal toys through the ages.
- Wandered through the Tokyo station museum gallery and enjoyed it's extensive collection of fossils.
- Sushi for dinner in the company of a cheerful elderly man and a talented sushi chef.
- One last look of Tokyo-- at the Akihabara station.
- Tokyo to SFO (I had a midnight flight).