I went to Japan during the Sakura season (Late March to April) for 10 days, covering Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and Nagoya. My friend and I bought the 7- Day JR Pass and thus wanted to maximise our coverage as much as possible! Thinking back now, there are a couple of reasons to love the country so much, going by rank:
- The Japanese language
- Taking the Shinkansen and local trains
- Choosing ekibens(lunch boxes) to bring on the Shinkansens
- The FOOD
- Omiyage (Japanese souvenir snack boxes
- Cute Japanese Children/Pets
… Ok, maybe there isn’t just a couple things I love about Japan… I love pretty much everything there. I have been to Japan 4 times now and I find myself always having new reasons to visit.
Accommodation – Oak Hostel-Hotel Ueno
We stayed at a Oak Hostel-hotel in UENO, which was pretty central. It is quite unique, as they have traditional Japanese or Western rooms for guests to choose. I stayed in the traditional Japanese room, which has a futon for bed. I haven’t slept on a futon before, and thought it would be hard, flat and uncomfortable. But it wasn’t and I had a really cosy sleep. The room was small, but well equipped with the basics, such as heater, TV and private shower. Oak Hostel is located between Ueno and traditional area called Asakusa in close proximity to the major sightseeing spots in Tokyo. Just one minute walk from Inaricho station on the Ginza subway line and 10minutes walk from JR Ueno station and 15minutes walk from Keisei Ueno station where you can reach directly from Narita International Air port (Info credits to HostelWorld).
Tsukiji Fish Market – Sushi Dai (寿司大) &
Delicious Street food
We went to the Tsukiji fish market in the next morning, and had the freshest sushi for breakfast at Sushi Dai. The queue took us about 1.5 hours, and yes, it was worth it. We each ordered the Omakase set (about 7 types of sushi, 2 servings per type), which costs about SGD 40. In Tsukiji, Sushi Dai (寿司大) and Daiwa Sushi (大和寿司) are probably the 2 most popular restaurants, run by a father and son respectively.
We also visited the wet markets on the other side, and caught many fishmongers on this cute looking motor roaming around.
Along the road there is one particular stall selling piping hot, freshly made Tamagoyaki, and on every one of my trips to Tsukiji, I’ll never fail to get at least 2 of these. So good in the cold weather! And it only costs 100 yen each.
There were several stalls selling aburi styled seafood, believe to be fresh from the market. I tried milt for the first time, without knowing what it was (whale sperm 😮 ), it tasted fine, nothing gross, but not yummy either. I loved the scallops combo, which had oysters, prawns, uni (sea urchin) piled on top and grilled/torched on the spot.
Asakusa – Senso-ji
After that we walked to Asakusa for some shopping of traditional souvenirs and sweets, and also visited Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple. It was crowded with tourists and locals, and there we rinsed out hands in ‘holy’ water and each of us took a paper fortune slip also known as Omikuji, which tells one’s fortune for the year.
Shinjuku – Golden Gai Ramen & Ippudo Ramen
We had dinner at a famous ramen shop in Shinjiku called ‘Golden Gai’. It took us quite a while to find as it was raining, and also because it’s pretty hidden along a small row of shophouses! Kept missing the sign so I guess when we finally climbed up the narrow steps and got us a seat in a tiny restaurant, it felt pretty amazing, like we’ve found a hidden gem in the middle of nowhere.
I’ve not tried Ippudo in Singapore, but the one in Tokyo, I felt was really, really good! I know Ichiran’s much raved about, but I’ve not tried it and Ippudo was already pretty amazing! I think I almost finished the bowl of soup. I loved the gyozas too!
GALA YUZAWA, NIIGATA
Ski & Snowboarding
On my earlier trip to Tokyo (a month before this), I went on a snowboarding day trip to Gala Yuzawa. Located in Niigata, I believe it is the nearest ski resort from central Tokyo. Only about 1.5 hrs train ride away, it felt quite cool to be transported to a land of pure white bliss within such a short time! It was also there that I experienced real falling snow for the first time. Too bad my camera couldn’t bear the cold, I only managed a couple of pictures, and a few from my phone.
Exploring old Gion teahouses & Geisha Spotting
We had a short couple of days in Tokyo, and arrived the next day in Kyoto, where to me, the ‘real’ Japan is. Coming from a city like Singapore, I guess I’ve grown to have a huge penchant for places that are slightly more ‘preserved’. It’s also where one can spot Geishas, along the famous Gion district. On a few nights in Kyoto, we ‘camped’ around the area just to catch sightings of the elusive and mysterious Geishas, moving from one tea house to another. Charming in the day and more so at night, do also take a chance to explore Ponto-chō as well, an area similar to Gion, where wooden architecture and lanterns fills the mysterious cobbled alleys.
Ice Cream at Gion Kinana
While exploring Gion, we chanced upon a dessert shop in the area, called ‘Gion Kinana’, and after some research, we realised it’s quite famous for its icecream! We joined the snaking queue (which moved fast) and got ourselves some sweet treats!
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
We took a day trip to Arashiyama, also known as ‘Bamboo Forest’, which is really beautiful.
Tofu Lunch at Yudofu Takemura
We had lunch at Yudofu Takemura, and each ordered a set meal which consists of several small dishes made from Tofu, a specialty ingredient in Arashiyama. Takemura is an old Japanese restaurant that specializes in yu-dofu, a popular winter cuisine in Kyoto. The restaurant’s tofu is made by a local tofu specialist, using Japanese soy beans and pure local well water. While waiting for our table, we also managed to grabs some packs of freshly made Dango(soft mochi), served with Kinako (soy bean flour), my absolute favourite!! Not too sweet, soft and addictive, I think I could eat an entire box or two by myself.
Hanami at Yasaka Shrine
There are several shrines in Kyoto, and one popular one is the Yasaka Shrine. From there, one can also take a stroll along Maruyama Park, and relax under a cherry blossom tree. The streets are also lined up with food stalls, making it a perfect place for a picnic.
Kyoto Sushi at Izuju
After visting Yakasa Shrine, do make your way right across the street, to try Kyoto sushi at Izuju, one of the oldest and best place for Kyoto sushi. There, we ordered a few types to share, such as the 1) Sasamaki, which is Sea bream fish wrapped in bamboo leaf 2) Sabazushi, which is basically a huge fillet of slighlty pickled mackerel fish wrapped in konbu(kelp). Each piece of sabazushi is HUGE so it took me a few bites to finish, and it was really filling. I really like Kyoto sushi as there’s flavour not just from the fish, but also in the sushi rice. Plus it really fills you up (if you’re really hungry) and isn’t expensive at all.
A little random here, but one morning before I was taking the train out, I bought this sushi for breakfast on the train(not sure what is the exact name), wrapped in cabbage. It was so delicious! Do try it if you see it.
Nara is easily accessible from Kyoto, (about a 30 minutes train ride) and can be done as a day trip. When in Nara, we visited the Nara Park, where deers roam freely. I also bought some biscuits to feed the deers, but it got scary when I quickly found myself surrounded by a bunch of hungry deers waiting to be fed (they seem to be very sensitive to food), so I just threw the biscuits on the ground haha!
The Todai-ji temple sits within the park premise and is huge Buddhist temple complex. The complex is built with wood, and within the Daibutsuden(main hall), an enormous bronze Buddha statue rests.
Izasa Nara Kakinoha-zushi
While walking out of the park we saw an interesting sushi restaurant, serving sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves. Apparently it’s Nara Sushi, and can only be found there! We did not regret trying a box because they were so so good! Unlike usual sushi, I could taste the sweetness of the fish and persimmon leaves in the rice. It was such a great find! So remember to check out Izasa Sushi when you’re in Nara!
I kept thinking about the sushi after leaving Nara, and was so happy to find a bento version at one of the JR lines minimart! It was good, but definitely weren’t as great as the freshly made ones.
NAGANO – KISO VALLEY
From Kyoto, we took a day trip to one of my favourite places visited in Japan so far — Kiso Valley, located in Nagano prefecture. From Kyoto, take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen from to Nagoya (35-45 minutes, several trains per hour) and transfer to the JR Hida limited express train to Takayama (140 minutes, one train per hour). The entire one way journey takes about three hours, costs around 9,500 yen and is fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
I’m not sure if it’s usually like this, but on the day when we were there, the valley was rather quiet and we only saw 1 or 2 visitors like us. It drizzled for a while in the noon, but coincidentally at around lunch time, so we found a cosy little restaurant to hide for a while. The place seemed to be run by an old couple, and yes, there was nobody around except for us, so it felt very much ‘at home’. I’m not sure why but when this bowl of food was served to me by the old lady(presumably the wife), it was a heartwarming moment.
In Osaka, we visited the Osaka Castle, a historical landmark built in the 1500s. Within the castle is a 7 storeys museum, of which the most interesting were the miniature figures on the 5th floor, depicting scenes from the Summer War of Osaka. The view from the top of the castle was rather nice too.
After which, we took a stroll around the surrounding Osaka Castle Park, and I got down to do some random but interesting street captures, which is something I love about Japan.
For lunch, we had a unique dish, which was udon noodles, served in fried tofu skin. It tasted pretty good, and felt quite healthy. Right outside of the restaurant there was a stall selling freshly- made mochi, and had a demo almost every 5 minutes. Being a mochi fan, I loved it! Took some videos of the making as well, which I will upload later.
Famous Osaka Kushiage
My friend once told me that Osaka is pretty well- known for its slightly unhealthier, fried food. I personally love sinful fried snacks, so the thought of having Kushiage was pretty enticing! When eating Kushiage you have to dip the fried food sticks (Pork/ Chicken/ Beef/S hrimp) into a sweet- savoury sauce. For the adventurous, there is a restaurant located in Shinsekai called ‘Kushikatsu Jan Jan’ which serves more exotic ‘meats’ such as kangaroo, ostrich, alligator, frog, crickets and scorpions!
We also had other Osaka must-eats such as Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki. If you have cravings for sushi in Osaka, a recommended place is Endo Sushi located in Osaka Fish Market.
Shinsekai 新世界 – Osaka vintage arcade
When in Osaka, do not miss walking down Shinsekai (新世界) which translates to ‘New World’ , which is quite ironic since its currently known for it’s nostalgic, classic oldie vibes, made so due to the lack of maintenance for decades. We were there at night, and only a few shops were opened, such as a couple of Kushiage restaurants and a very old fashioned, vintage looking chess parlour, where we spotted many old Japanese Ojisans playing chess together!
We wanted coffee, and chanced upon this quaint and cute little cafe still opened for business at that late hour. We had an old school sundae too, and spent the night chatting with the nice lady owner. Wished I had more time to spare, to catch the famous Glico man in Dōtombori!
Special mentions: Shimokitazawa, Family Mart
I didn’t plan for anything specific to do on my last day in Tokyo, and found one of my favourite neighbourhoods (ever). From Shibuya, take a train ride on the Inokashira Line, and you’ll reach Shimokitazawa in about 5 minutes. I love crawling for vintage finds, and to my discovery, the entire neighbourhood seemed to be lined up with numerous shops selling vintage clothing, toys, accessories etc. Every shop has a quaint character of its own, and my favourite thing about vintage is that you’ll never know what you’ll find. There are several cafes around the area as well, great for taking breaks in between shopping!
One thing I really miss about Japan is Family Mart, in particular the convenient food, and in particular, the Fried chicken. So please do yourself a favour and not forget to try it when your’re there! I’ve heard good reviews of the Oden they sell in stores as well and I sure hope to try it soon too.
I shall end off this post with more food pictures!