Japan – part 3: Hakone ryokan

One of the things we really wanted to do in Japan was to spend a night at a traditional guesthouse (ryokan): eat the multi course dinners, bathe in hot springs and sleep on futons on a tatami floor. We decided to go to the Hakone area since it was an easy train ride from Tokyo and in the right direction for our trip through Japan.

Hakone is a mountainous area a couple of hours from Tokyo. The train ride to Odawara was easy, and there we connected to the Hakone transport system with our Hakone free pass. There is the so called “Hakone round course” where you are able to go around the area in a day using different means of transportation: busses, trains, ropeways and a boat. It sounds like a lot of transport changes but it was very easy. What I like about this area is that it is very easy to get around without a car since the transport options are included with the train pass.

Unfortunately, the beautiful weather we had most of the time in Tokyo vanished when we got to Hakone. The Yugiriso ryokan that we stayed at was located in Hakone-mashi very close to the lake Ashi where you are supposed to see Mount Fuji on the other side. We walked along the shoreline but we couldn’t see a thing, it was so foggy! And then it started to rain and it didn’t stop…

We were glad we stayed in a nice ryokan and enjoyed their indoor facilities such as the indoor and outdoor hot springs.

Our oom at the Yugiriso ryokan had the traditional tatami flooring and futon beds, which the staff made up for us in the evening and put away in the morning. There was also a small table where the elaborate meals were served. We stayed there for two nights and were given different dishes, most of them delicious, with lots of seafood, fish and vegetables.

After the very tasty dinner, we visited the hot springs again. They are gender separated as is traditional in Japan, and are shared with the other residents. I suppose there are ryokans where you can have your own hot spring but we were happy with our choice. It wasn’t very crowded at all so at times, we had the hot springs to ourselves. Since they were outside, we could talk softly to each other through the wooden wall that separated them. If anyone else was there, I think you are supposed to be quiet and contemplate nature. We slept like babies afterwards on the futons.

The next morning, breakfast was served in our room in the same concept as dinner, which means many small dishes in different bowls. The lady serving us was very polite. The breakfast dishes also consisted of mainly fish and vegetables. Green tea as well, of course. I enjoyed most of the dishes very much but the fermented baby eals (they looked like it anyway, probably some kind of fish) was a bit much.

Then we were off on the Hakone round course which included several means of transportation: train, cablecar, ropeway and boat! Even though the weather was absolutely horrible – very windy, foggy and rainy – we had a great day. The round course transportation worked out fine although we were lucky to catch the last boat across the lake before they cancelled them due to the fog. The boats were actually pirate themed for some reason.

The most challenging part was high up in Owakudani where it was so windy that it was actually hard to walk in the wind and the rain. The ropeway up there and down again wasn’t that bad though. Luckily, there was a big gift shop there where they sell the famous black eggs which are given their color by being cooked in sulfur ponds. There are trails to walk along to the sulfur ponds but we didn’t due to the weather, and I think they are closed some of the time because of sulfurous fumes as well.

We returned to the ryokan in the afternoon and went straight for the hot springs to warm up. We then had the same excellent dinner experience with different dishes and then even more hot springs. It was very relaxing to be at a ryokan and we were happy to have booked a two nights stay.

So, if you’re wondering whether it’s worth the price to stay at a ryokan, for us it definitely was! We chose one of the mid-priced ones which included meals in our own room (some have communal meals) and shared hot springs. It was very different from the rest of our experiences in crowded Japan and very well worth our time and money. We were a bit disappointed with the weather and lack of view but used the hot springs more than we probably would have otherwise. And had the weather been clear, I’m sure the view of the lake and mount Fuji would have been amazing.

Next stop: Kyoto!

Japan – part 2.1: Even more Tokyo

Shibuya

Shibuya is a very vibrant district with the famous crosswalk in the middle. Compared to the relatively quiet Asakusa district, we had to get used to the massive neon lights and multi-story houses. Outside the metro station, the statue of the dog Hachiko (watch the movie if you want a good cry!) is always surrounded by picture takers and street performers. People everywhere, so much fun!

We had dinner at Genki sushi in Shibuya where you sit at a counter, order items from a personal screen and then the food is delivered to you on the conveyor belt. I loved the sushi. It wasn’t fancy or expensive but still everything was so tasty and fresh. My husband who is allergic to shellfish and doesn’t like raw fish still enjoyed his sushi made with chicken and cooked salmon. We had so much food that night and it was all so good!

After a matcha tea, we were off to experience the famous crosswalk by night. There are cafes such as Starbucks overlooking the square so if you’re lucky or willing to wait, you can get a table by the window. You can also see the crosswalk quite well from inside the train station, walk towards the department store.

Meiji Shrine

The next day we went to the Shinjuku area and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings Observatories in the morning. These are two twin towers with free observation decks with an amazing view over Tokyo. Go on a clear day like we did. There is also a restaurant as well as a gift shop up there in each observatory.

View from one of the observatories. The blue spots are where people put out plastic sheets in the park to mark their spot for picnics in the sakura season

Then we went to the Yoyogi park and the Meiji shrine. The shrine area is located in a forest and it was absolutely beautiful. Very serene even though there were, as everywhere, lots of visitors. Japanese families enjoyed their time in the sun and took wedding and family photos which was fun to watch. The entry to the shrine is through a 12 meter high wooden torii gate.

In the afternoon we went to the Takeshita area which was absolutely crazy. This pedestrian street is a favorite teen hangout and was so crowded. We had so much fun when we took snapshots purikura-style (add the filters you wish, hilarious) and visited a cat café with Oriental cats. There are also several crêpe cafes on the street and they had massive tasty servings. Great afternoon!

The cat café with beautiful friendly cats (and yes, they could escape to safer grounds whenever they wanted)

Back in Shibuya, we went for dinner at the Ichiran ramen restaurant. You stand in line, order the food from a machine, get paper tickets and then take your seat at a wooden booth. There are curtains before you with the kitchen staff moving around behind them. You fill out a form with extras and then you are given the most wonderful bowl of ramen noodles. Slurp away! It was so good, almost hard to believe. Needless to say, it wasn’t our last bowl of ramen in Japan.

More shrines and the castle park

The next day, it was our final day in Tokyo and we started off by going to the Chiyoda district by train. We went to the Yasukuni shrine that had pretty parks and a zen garden with a lake. Somehow I dropped my phone and credit card wallet into the pond but everything survived the fall and the water… Lucky me… The Kitanomaru park was close by and we enjoyed watching the rowing boats on the lake in the park.

Our next area to visit was Yanaka which is an old-fashioned street with lots of cat things due to some comic book character. We had some fun cat-shaped filled cakes and looked at a lot of cat stuff. We also went to the cemetery nearby which is famous for its cherry trees. Since we were right in the sakura season, it was wonderful to watch all the flowers, and the cemetery had lots of pretty statues as well.

After a busy day, we actually returned to the Metropolitan building to see the Tokyo skyline by night. And then we had sushi, lots of it again. It’s very easy to order even though we don’t speak Japanese since there are photos of every dish with the price next to it.

And that was it for our days in Tokyo. Although we visited some of the neighborhoods, Tokyo is a gigantic city. You need to be able to maneuver the public transport system to get around. We relied on trains, and since there are several train companies, the pre-charged metro card came in handy. And yes, the rumors are true – avoid the before and after work hours since the trains are crazy busy. There are carriages for women only which are slightly less crowded.

Next, we were going to something completely different: a traditional ryokan in Hakone!

Japan – part 3: Ryokan in Hakone


Japan – part 2: Tokyo

This is part 2 of our two week trip to Japan in April. Part 1 covered the basics of traveling there and the foodie highlights. At the end of the post there is a map showing most of the places we went to. Tokyo is huge, so plan your days carefully.

Experiencing Tokyo – the first three days

We arrived at Narita airport mid-morning and picked up our Japan rail passes from the airport station to save some time later in the week. Since we were going to be in Tokyo for a while, we bought rail passes with a later starting date and booked the Shinkansen fast trains accordingly. While waiting in line for the train pass, we got our first taste of Japanese cuisine from a well-stocked 7/11-store when we bought some seaweed covered rice balls, a snack staple later on our trip.

So many fillings to choose from, so easy to eat on the go.

Then we bought our rechargeable Tokyo public transportation card and off we went into Tokyo. Our first stop was the neighborhood Asakusa for two nights. We stayed in a tiny but clean AirBnB very close to the temple area, perfect for our short stay of three nights in Asakusa.

Asakusa – temple area

The cherry blossoms were in bloom as we walked around the big temple area in Asakusa. Lots of people everywhere and very camera friendly. People (mostly tourists) were walking around in kimonos. Our first snack was a taiyaki, a fish-shaped pancake with a red bean or sweet potato filling.  Later on, we also had steamed meat buns for lunch and then some green tea Kitkats. Those Kitkats actually became an obsession during the trip, as well as other unique Japanese flavors we could find in the many, many convenience and grocery stores we went into.

Our first dinner was a tonkatsu meal in the Hamakatsu restaurant an easy train ride away. By the taste of that fried pork chop and its condiments, we knew we were in for an excellent trip foodwise. The Asahi beer was perfect to go with the meal.

Matsugaya, Ueno park and Ginza

The next day, we continued our walk around the Asakusa temples and then went into the Matsugaya area. There are tons of specialized stores there on different streets, for example the kitchenware stores. I almost bought a Hello Kitty rice ball shaper, so cute!

Then we stocked up on supplies for a picknick lunch and went to Ueno park. When the cherry trees are in bloom, there’s a constant family party in the park. After our picnic, we perused the food stalls and had some grilled sakura flavored marshmallows, more steamed buns and beer. It was a great day in the sunny weather.

When night fell, we went into the Ginza area for some shopping and then had our first bowl of ramen from a small noodle shop. We chose our meals from a number of plastic displays, got a ticket from a machine and then the noodle bowl was made to order. So tasty!

For dessert, we went to one of those uniquely Japanese places – a maid café in Chiyoda. This was one of the larger, more family-friendly chains (Maidreamin) but it was still kind of weird to see young Japanese girls dance around us in their maid costumes. We had some ice-cream and cake which were decorated at the table with cute drawings of bunnies and cats. Then it was back to Asakusa for us by metro, and we took a stroll around the well-lit temple area as well.

Tsukiji fishmarket and Nakajima tea house

We had kind of an early start and went to the Tsukiji fishmarket after a quick breakfast at a pancake place. Although most of the fish market has since relocated, we went when the wholesale interior part of the market was still up and running. We came after the big morning rush but were still able to see the fish mongers run around with carts of ice and so many kinds of fish and seafood. There were some kinds of fish that I have absolutely no idea what it was, along with some huge tunas. Although it was too early for sushi for us, we bought some condiments at one of the many shops next to the fish market.

Since it was still mid-morning, we walked to the Hamarikyu park. In the park, there is a lake with the teahouse Nakajima-no-ochaya next to it. We entered (shoes off of course!) and enjoyed a traditional cup of tea on the veranda. It consisted of a cup of matcha tea and a traditional pretty sweet, along with precise instructions for how to drink and eat. Such a great moment to remember! The matcha’s bitterness matched the sweet pastry perfectly and the surroundings were just beautiful.

The weather was excellent so we kept walking and went into the Hibiya park. There were temples, rock gardens, lakes and cherry blossoms so a great place to visit. After a tonkatsu lunch, we picked up our luggage and took the metro to our next area of stay, Shibuya.

And this concludes the first part of the Tokyo posts. We did so much in Tokyo in our five days there that there will be a second part, based in Shibuya.

Next: Two weeks in Japan – part 2.1: Even more Tokyo

Two delicious weeks in Japan – part 1: The basics and the best

In April 2017, we travelled around Japan for two great weeks. We timed the trip perfectly with the cherry blossoming. It was an amazing trip both food wise and for all the sights and impressions. Here’s our two week itinerary, divided into parts.

Part 1 – The basics and the best

Let’s start with the basics:
  • Where did we go?
    Tokyo > Hakone > Kyoto > Nara > Osaka > Hiroshima > Fukuoka
  • When did we go?
    The first weeks of April, perfect for the cherry blossoming (sakura)
  • How did we travel?
    In Tokyo: local trains, otherwise mostly fast trains (shinkansen) and a domestic flight from Fukuoka to Tokyo
  • Would we go again?
    Tomorrow if I could! 
The itinerary
  • Day 1-5                          Tokyo
  • Day 6-7                          Hakone
  • Day 8-10                        Kyoto (day trip to Nara and Osaka)
  • Day 11-12                      Hiroshima (day trip to Miyajima island)        
  • Day 13                           Fukuoka

Some of the best foodie experiences (but too many to choose from really!)

Travel companions

 

Next: Part 2 – Experiencing Tokyo from Asakusa