Japan

As with Vietnam, I was not in the mood to plan our trip to Japan. It’s a unique and expensive country, and it’s also one that Aidan’s wanted to visit for a long time, so we wanted to make it special. We were there from December 28 – Jan 3 and wanted to see Kyoto and Tokyo.

ViaHero

When I was looking into travel agency options, initially all the ones I found were ridiculously expensive. Then I came across ViaHero. It was ahhh-MAzing and cheap: for only $25 per day of your trip, you’ll get a personalized travel itinerary that’s created by a local, based on your preferences. They organize your itinerary day by day in both an offline PDF and in the ViaHero app, and you get unlimited emails, texts, or calls with your travel planner.

Our itinerary started with our arrival at the airport (where we even had suggestions on where to eat breakfast at two different terminals), with transportation instructions to our hotel. For each day thereafter, we also received detailed instructions about where to eat each meal (on the cheap! — we pretty much ate our way through Japan), what to do, how to get there, and local “insider” tips, like snacks to try at food stalls and local things to buy.

To get all of this, all I had to do was fill out a detailed form indicating our desired price range; types of things we wanted to see and do; dietary needs, limitations, and desires; what types of travelers we are (i.e., risk-averse? foodies? museum-goers? etc.); dates of travel; and where we were staying. (They also would have suggested hotels, but I had already spent eight hours researching options, which were very scarce and expensive because we were going to be there over New Year’s.)

I even got to pick the “Hero” I wanted to plan our trip. The first woman I chose was busy, so I contacted the company and they suggested another woman, Kelsey. She did a fabulous job, and quickly too. She’s an American who had lived in Tokyo for several years and knew the city and the country well, so she spoke English fluently – a big bonus!

Our trip itinerary from ViaHero for Japan was among the best $150 I’ve ever spent.

Here are some snapshots of the app so you can get a feel for it:

Kyoto

Day 1

We took an overnight flight from Hanoi after the last leg of our journey, arriving at the Osaka/Kyoto airport around 7AM. We took public transportation from the airport to Kyoto — which was admittedly a frustrating process because we were all tired, and the subway systems there are very complicated. Luckily, Aidan is good at stuff, knows a little Japanese, and is conversant with getting around via public transportation. The rides took around 4 hours; we even had to make a stop at one of the train stations to eat because it was taking us so long.

We had to make the most of our limited time in Japan, so after we checked into Ben’s Guesthouse and a quick regroup, we went to our first stop: Nishiki Market, known as “Kyoto’s kitchen.” It’s a narrow, five-block indoor/outdoor shopping market with over a hundred shops. Our Hero Kelsey had suggested various foods to try there, including grilled soy sauce mochi, fried octopus balls, and a delicious Japanese omelet filled with cabbage and other yummy stuff. We ate our way through the market. 😊 We also stopped and bought some fancy chopsticks and had them engraved.

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Afterward, we walked to the historic district of Gion, also known as the “geisha district.” We first went to a fancy-schmancy tea house called Gion Sakai and warmed up with some hot tea (by this time, it had started snowing!). Have I mentioned how expensive Japan is? Well, it is. The tea was about $8-10 per person. Yikes. It was lovely, though.

Moving along, we saw some women dressed in kimonos walking down the charming old streets, but we were pretty sure most were tourists (some Korean, maybe, and others Chinese). There are shops everywhere around this area offering kimono rentals and hair/make-up for tourists. I was tempted to try it too, but decided it was better to leave that to the professionals and the other tourists.

For dinner, we went to a tiny curry shop called Kara-Kusa. There were only about 10 seats in the joint, so we sidled up to the bar and ordered some seriously delicious curry.

Day 2

The restaurant we were supposed to go to for breakfast was closed (which was a total bummer, as it was very close to our lodging and our Hero was yet to steer us wrong). Not to worry! We found a place close to the meet-up point for a private historic walking tour. The food was pretty good. Then we moved on to our tour.

I had accidentally booked this same tour for the wrong day, one week prior; thankfully the guide didn’t seem too mad about my mistake. We walked around various temples, including Buddhist and Shinto. We learned about the Japanese sense of beauty: simplicity over gorgeousness — elegant, austere but refined. We sat by a meditation garden and learned about their design, and about the 106 earthly desires. It was a very informative 3-hours.

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Lunch was at a cool place called Okonomiyaki Teppanyaki Kimura (say that three times fast!) that served Japanese “pancakes.” We sat at a small table with a big sauté grill that served as our plates, keeping the pancakes warm. It was a family-owned restaurant that is apparently quite famous among the people of Kyoto. There were many Japanese celebrities’ autographs hung on the walls. The food was delicious.

We then went to see the Fushimi Torii Gates, whose bright orange arches you may have seen in photos and advertisements. This excursion started at the temple area, and then we followed the bright orange gates up the mountain to the first lookout point. There were a ton of tourists all taking group pictures and selfies. Many, many selfies. The gates are iconic, so we took lots of pictures too. The view of the city was lovely.

One the way back to the metro, we stopped to pet some kitties at a cat café and then had two fun desserts, sort of like thin crepes filled with custard and chocolate, respectively, pressed into the shape of a fish. Yummy!

Next, we found our way to dinner at Miyako Shokudou, a family-run restaurant frequented by only locals (meaning there was no English menu). Aidan helped us order some udon and an extra dish of fried chicken. This little place was well off the beaten path: It took us about 45 minutes to get there and another 45 minutes to get back to our hotel.

Day 3

This day was adorable. We took a tram to Arashiyama, a charming little parkside suburb known for its main shopping street, all sorts of green tea-flavored food, a bamboo forest, and expensive-as-hell real estate. We ate a late breakfast at the Japanese equivalent of a diner and then walked through the (tourist-filled) Bamboo Grove. It was lovely.

We then wandered through the quiet lanes of the surrounding neighborhood and marveled at the traditional Japanese houses and gardens. It was cold and after a while it started raining, but we didn’t mind; we stopped for tea and sweets at Sagano Kaede Café to warm up. A little later, Scott and Aidan went to a Bengal cat café to play with the friendly kitties while I strolled around the shops.

That evening, dinner was at a small Japanese tapas restaurant, close to our hotel, where each table orders from an iPad. We sat on the floor and enjoyed a few beers and lots of dishes. This was our most expensive meal in Japan, but it was delicious, and the atmosphere was comfortable and cozy.

Day 4

This was Dec 31, the day of New Year’s Eve. We took a high-speed bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo, a trip of about two hours. It was so cool! We dropped off our bags in lockers at the station and ventured out on an elegant high-end shopping street — full of Prada, Gucci, Fendi, etc. — until we reached our “cheap eats” ramen lunch spot called Kohmen Ramen. The food was mouth-wateringly good, so much so in fact that we went back another day.

Aidan was pumped for our next excursion: walking down the famous “Harajuku Street.” We stopped at several shops that sold very fashionable Japanese clothing for young people: baby doll / Lolita dresses, chunky platform shoes, over-sized sweaters, etc. This is the place to go to buy themed clothing. Aidan bought some pink platform sneakers that she loved while I tried on some hats for fun. For a snack, Aidan and Scott order some fancy crepes at the oldest crepe shop in Tokyo, Angel’s Heart. One was filled with whipped cream and green tea cheesecake, while the other had ice cream, whip cream, and cherry filling, sort of like a Belgian waffle in a cone-shaped crepe. YUM!

We then went to Shibuya and walked across the world’s largest and busiest crosswalk. This area is like Times Square in New York City… and since it was NYE, it was insanely busy. There were people setting up for a countdown show, but we didn’t stay for the festivities. It was way too crowded for our liking. There were so many people on the street that you could barely move.

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We fought the crowds while walking around but gave up and went back to our Airbnb, where we rung in the new year in our beds. (Our Hero suggested we go to karaoke and to a special new years’ parade, but we decided not to.)

Day 5

The next morning, we had dinner at a fast food place called Matsuya. This isn’t like most fast food joints we know in the Americas: You order and pay at an automated touch-screen machine, and then someone brings your meal out on a tray. And breakfast isn’t your typical eggs and toast. We got meat and rice bowls with an egg on top and green tea. Again, yum.

We then went to the anime-manga-otaku district of Tokyo, Akihabara. This is a must-see if you’re an anime fan or into gaming and/or cosplay. We walked around for a bit, seeing all the various shops selling anime and gaming stuff, and then we went into a giant multi-storied gaming hub called Sega (they have a few of these in this area). Each floor houses different video games; Aidan played a few games that were based on her favorite anime shows (or vice versa).

Be warned: This place is almost overwhelming – it’s packed with people, the shops are everywhere, and the shop signs are extremely bright and in your face. It’s a bit of a sensory overload, especially inside the Sega buildings.

For a snack we got six different cheese tarts: plain (our favorite), green tea, chocolate, etc. We ate them all before getting the metro to the Tokyo Tower, where we saw a great view of the city. Leaving, we wandered around an elaborate temple nearby that was holding New Year celebrations.

By this point, we were exhausted, so we had a quick dinner and went back to relax at our Airbnb.

Day 6

This day started out with a bang. We went to a notable sushi restaurant where you eat standing up at the sushi bar while you watch the chefs make the individual pieces. We had to stand in line for about 45 minutes to get in because the place is small, but it was well worth it.

After, we walked around the extremely crowded area of Asakusa. The locals were still celebrating the new year at the nearby temple of Sensoji, so there were a ton of people flocking to it to pray. We tried to be patient and shop among the throngs of people, but we just didn’t enjoy it. Too busy.

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Luckily it was not too long before our next big thing: Kabuki theater. Aidan and Scott had learned about kabuki in theatre history classes, although it had been many years for Scott since he’d read and watched videos about it. Aidan explained that it was created a long time ago by a prostitute who wanted to perform puppetry, but she wasn’t allowed. Instead, she herself performed, moving and behaving like a puppet, with very large, stylized movements — and thus was kabuki invented.

Before too long, though, men claimed the performance aroused them too much and declared that, from then on, it could only be performed by boys and male youths. It wasn’t long before some other bastards then said the young men also turned them on too much, so they declared that only grown men could perform this way.

Hence, we have the current tradition of kabuki theater.

Personally, I didn’t enjoy the first show, and the second was just alright. The stylized movement and sort of musical, lilting language is interesting… for about five minutes. I didn’t really understand the first story, which was a very old medieval tale. The second story was worse: Basically, a female servant broke a family heirloom to test whether her master, a powerful samurai lord, truly loved her. He did, but he then killed her anyway for the audacity of having questioned the depth his love. Shitty story. It was a very male-dominating, patriarchy, don’t-question-my-authority lesson for females. I wasn’t a fan.

That night, we discovered that the toilet and shower in our Airbnb had stopped functioning, so our host offered us another apartment in the Shibuya area. It was a pain to pack up our stuff and drag it all to another place for just one more night, but we survived (barely). Such hardship! 😉

Day 7, Last Day

We had the morning to do stuff before catching our flights, so we hit up Tully’s Coffee and walked down Cat Street, where we saw several American brand clothing stores. Oddly enough, we also spotted Ethan Hawke walking along with his wife. Scott was the one to notice him. I didn’t get a good look at his face, and then I had the hardest time remembering who he was, but we knew he was someone famous. It was only a few weeks later that Scott finally figured out who it was we’d seen.

We also went back to Harajuku Street so Aidan could shop a bit more at the shops that were closed the first time we were there. We also walked around Shibuya again, and this time it was much less crowded, thank goodness. We stumbled upon the Red Light Street, and it felt pretty creepy walking as a family down it, so we quickly did an about-face.

After some sweet goodbyes, we said adieu to Miss Aidan before she took off home for Toronto. It was really nice having her with us in both Vietnam and Japan — and she was a lifesaver in Japan, as she knew some of the language and was a wiz with the train system! (Scott’s Japanese is so rusty it’s basically gone, so note to self: Never go to Japan without Aidan.) Photo Jan 03, 3 04 45 AM

Later that same day, we flew to Malaysia, which will be the subject of our next blog.

—Connie, Scott, and Aidan

p.s. We love you, Aidan!!

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