Exploring Tokyo for the First Time

Thanksgiving week seemed like a perfect time to head over to Asia for the first time with the family. The girls were on school breaks and it’s typically a slower work week for my husband. But you may be wondering…Japan for Thanksgiving?? Japan did gift the USA with beautiful cherry trees…So, I am thankful for that! In all seriousness, Japan does celebrate on November 23rd, but they call it “Thanksgiving Labor Day”. Some businesses even give time off from work.

Once we arrived and started exploring, we realized that it’s a very busy time of the year. None the less, we had a fantastic time! We celebrated with the Japanese and a multitude of visiting Chinese during a temperate Fall week with flaming maple trees & golden ginkgo trees (cherry trees blossom only in the Spring…need to plan another trip for that spectacle)!

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Yoyogi Park in Tokyo

Similar to NYC on a mild fall day, lot’s of families & friends go out to enjoy the nice weather and beautiful foliage in the parks in Tokyo. Again much like NYC, Tokyo has predominantly pavement and tall building, so the parks get busy.

As we strolled through Yoyogi Park, which was near our hotel (Park Hyatt Tokyo), we noticed how clean it was even with all the social activities going on. The people seem to be very careful to clean-up after themselves. Even with all the crowds, I was amazed at how clean the city was and we hardly saw trash cans!

Wedding photos underway at Meiji Shrine garden in Tokyo

Wedding photos underway at Meiji Shrine garden in Tokyo

While walking through the Meiji Shrine gardens, we came across a couple that were having pictures taken in traditional Japanese wedding outfits. The bride looked perfect with her hair all done up and the porcelain-like make-up!

“Scramble Crossing” in Tokyo

“Scramble Crossing” in Shibuya district, is the busiest intersection in the World. It can accommodate as many as 2,500 pedestrians with each rush-hour traffic signal change! Don’t drive here!!

Small shop on a side street in Tokyo

Small restaurant on a side street in Tokyo

Walking down a side street, one couldn’t miss this brightly decorated restaurant. It had blown-up images of their food plastered near the door for people to see what they serve (several other restaurants did that too). We had a good laugh at the dressed up she-piggy by the door, welcoming guests in!

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“Lolita” girl while out and about in Harajuku district in the Shibuya, Tokyo

The youth subculture’s favorite hang-out area is in Harajuku district in Shibuya. It’s full of high-end shops, restaurants and lots of youth! Several of the stores carry Victorian doll costumes that the “Lolita” like to wear. Women wear these outfits not just when attending parties, but as everyday wear even while eating a McDonald’s burger.

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Table for two

While exploring Shibuya, we walked past this cute scene…Two adorable doggies having a drink!

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Statue of the loyal dog Hachiko in Shibuya

The statue of Hachiko in Shibuya, near the subway station, has become a popular meeting place. It’s in remembrance of the loyal dog, that would wait for his owner’s return from work, at Shibuya Station. While at work one day, the owner died, yet Hachi continued to wait for his ‘master’ every evening for the following 9 years. Now that’s devotion!

View from the Mori Tower observatory, through the mist, in Roppongi Hills

View from the Mori Tower observatory, through the mist, in Roppongi Hills

We spent part of a rainy day walking around Roppongi Hills. The building complex features offices, apartments, luxury shopping, fine dining restaurants, movie theater, a hotel and the Mori Arts Center which is in one of Tokyo’s tallest buildings. We toured the arts center and checked out the views from their observatory deck. You can see Tokyo Tower, modeled after the Eiffel Tower, in the mist. It’s the World’s tallest self-supporting steel tower and 42 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower.

You can’t go to Tokyo without experiencing the Robot Restaurant. Imagine flashing lights, glitzy girls dancing to taiko drums and techno music with a giant panda, dinosaurs, ninjas and (of course) robots on a stage that, if you’re not careful, can get a hand or finger squished as the large apparatuses move about! Show on STEROIDS!! Nothing like it…must see for yourself!

Robot Restaurant, Tokyo

Robot Restaurant, Tokyo

It’s in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho red-light district, a seedy part of town…so beware  and have your hotel concierge pre-purchase your tickets, then have the cab driver drop you off in front and pick you up there too, so you don’t have to walk around.

Plan to eat before you get to the show because it’s not great food, barely OK snacks.

We finally got a beautiful view of the famous Mount Fuji one morning, from our room up high in the Park Hyatt Tokyo.

Mount Fuji peaking through the clouds-view from our room at the Park Hyatt Tokyo

Mount Fuji peaking through the clouds-view from our room at the Park Hyatt Tokyo

The Park Hyatt Tokyo is a fantastic hotel with great service, comfortable rooms and great restaurants. I really enjoyed the New York Bar UNPLUGGED that has great views and offers live jazz performances nightly. We had Thanksgiving Dinner next door, at New York Grill, that has an open kitchen.  We didn’t have turkey and all the fixing, but instead we had steaks and seafood! Even though it didn’t really feel like Thanksgiving, it was a tasty meal non the less. We won’t forget it!

Chefs preparing dinner at Robotaya Restaurant in Roppongi

Chefs preparing dinner at Robotaya Restaurant in Roppongi

The Robotaya chefs were great at preparing our authentic Japanese meals from the fresh meats, seafood and veggies spread out in front. They cook them on an open-hearth style grill and the sake was perfect with the meal!

With saki in hand, we toasted the night...Kampai!

Awaiting dinner at Robotaya, with sake in hand, we toasted the night…Kampai!

I can’t forget to tell you about one of my culinary highlights of this trip. I got to have lunch at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza. Again, thanks to the assistance from the concierge at the Park Hyatt, who made the reservation 30 days in advance (the earliest Jiro allows).

Kenny & I got there early and waited in the basement of an office/retail building, for the doors to open. Jiro’s is small with a sushi bar that seats about 8-10 people and a few tables. We were seated with 7 other guests at the bar. We were given a pre-fix menu, listing the 20-pieces of sushi we will each be served. Jiro & his oldest son, careful assemble each piece, brush their special sauce on top and place it on each guest’s plate respectively. He quickly noticed and chuckled that I was a “southpaw”, then proceeded to place the rest of my nigiri, specifically for my ease of picking it up.

Everyone spoke in hushed voices, as not to disturb Jiro’s work. It was quite dramatic! The lady next to me lives in the States, but is originally from Japan. As we were looking over the menu, she got all excited for the “uni” to be served later. I’ve never had that before, so I figured it must be fantastic since she was so looking forward to it. I too got excited in anticipation of my first taste of “uni”. Alas, as soon as I placed the piece in my mouth and tasted the sweetness of the meat and texture, I grossed out. I REALLY wanted to spit it out, but I couldn’t since Jiro, was watching me! I tried not to gag as I forced myself to swallow it, but only with a full glass of sake! It must be an acquired taste…and I’m just fine with not acquiring it!

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Jiro & his eldest….Best, sneaky pic I took while sitting at the table having tea & honeydew melon

After getting stuffed with 20 pieces of sushi, we were seated at a table to enjoy honeydew melon and authentic Japanese green tea. It was a pleasant way to end the meal!

Got my book about Jiro and  ready to explore Tokyo

Got my book about Jiro and ready to explore Tokyo

To experience traditional Japan, you must visit Kyoto. Kyoto was the old capital of Japan with literally thousands of  shrines and temples. You can read about my day-trip on my previous blog post

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Gardens and koi pond at Toji Temple in Kyoto

Until next time Japan!!

Live well!!

Dana

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A First Timer’s Day-Trip to Kyoto

Visiting Kyoto is a great way to experience traditional Japan. We took the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. The trains are very punctual, fast (200mph) and have forward-facing comfortable seats.

We never felt ‘lost’ in the train station since there were several English speaking attendants working, who were able to help us with directions. It would be more difficult once out and about the streets of Kyoto since everything is written in Japanese! Luckily, we hired a private driver/tour guide, who made it possible for us to get around without any worries. The concierge at the Park Hyatt Tokyo scheduled the private driver for us.

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Gardens and koi pond at Toji Temple in Kyoto

Kyoto was the old capital of Japan with literally thousands of shrines and temples. Way too many to see in one day! Though, we did see several, each unique, which helped us better understand some aspects of the culture of the Japanese.

The two main religions in Japan are Shinto and Buddhism and people seem to adhere to them both, which co-exist and complement each other.  Shinto is the indigenous faith of Japan, dating back to the 8th century. Buddhism was brought from South Asia between the 4th and 6th century.

I loved the gardens at the Toji Temple with the reflecting koi ponds and vivid fall foliage! The temperature was ideal for walking around the tranquil grounds.

Toji Temple in Kyoto

Toji Temple in Kyoto

The five-storied pagoda at Toji Temple is the highest in Japan at 187 feet. It burned down four times after being struck by lighting…what bad karma! The current pagoda was built in 1644. It houses images of the Four Buddhas and their followers, the eight great Bosatsu.

Toji is a treasure house of Esoteric Buddhism art, due to its large number of cultural assets brought back from China, including old Buddhist statues, carvings and paintings.

Yakushi-nyorai (Bhaisajyaguru) Triad in the Kondo Hall at Toji Temple in Kyoto

Yakushi-nyorai (Bhaisajyaguru) Triad in the Kondo Hall at Toji Temple in Kyoto

The statue of Yakushi (1603), the Buddha of Healing, is located in Kondo Hall. It is flanked by statues of Nikko (Sunlight Bodhisattva) and Gakko (Moonlight Bodhisattva).

Next we went to the most famous Shinto shrine in Japan, Fushimi Inari Taisha with cheerful orange torii gates. Once inside, practically everything else was painted orange too!

Fushimi Inari Taisha -Shinto shrine

Fushimi Inari Taisha -Shinto shrine

The shrine sits at the base of Inari Mountain (764 above sea level) and includes trails up the mountain to many smaller shrines which span around 2.5 miles and takes approximately 2 hours to walk up.

This shrine was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake by the Hata clan in the 8th century.

Fushimi Inari Taisha -Shinto shrine

Fushimi Inari Taisha,-Shinto shrine

Ema are wooden plates where people leave their wishes in the hope that they will come true. The above ones also came with “fox heads” for people to draw in faces.

Fushimi Inari Taisha -Shinto shrine...the 2005 movie,

Fushimi Inari Taisha -Shinto shrine…the 2005 movie, “Memoirs of a Geisha” was filmed here.

Since early Japan, Inari was seen as the patron of business, and merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshipped Inari. Each of the torii at Fushimi Inari Shrine is donated by a Japanese business.

The seemingly unending path of about 10,000 vibrant torii gates, that wind through the hills behind Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, made for a fun walk up the hill.

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Young girls all dressed up in traditional Japanese kimonos

These colorful kimono-clad young girls were waiting their turn to make their offering at the shrine to pray. This is usually done by throwing a coin into the box as an offering, bowing deeply twice, clapping twice, bowing again and then praying. Often there is a gong which may be used before praying to get the kami or Shinto gods’ attention. Gonging sounds fun…I don’t think I’d get past that first step!!

Next, we went to Nishi Hongwanji templethat is  the headquarters of the Hongwanji denomination of Jodo-Shin Buddhism and one of the most influential schools in Japan.

Nishi Hongwanji-Kyoto

Nishi Hongwanji-Kyoto

The grounds have several huge Ginkgo Biloba trees, also known as “maidenhair trees”, which are one of my favorites. They were in full show, with their golden leaves, glowing against the neutral shades of the temple grounds!

I loved the architectural aspect of these temples, from the curves in the roofs, to the contrast of the white exterior walls with the dark grays/black trim and tiled roofs. It is considered one of the finest examples of Momoyama style architecture in Kyoto.

Nishi Hongwanji-Kyoto

Nishi Hongwanji-Kyoto

In the courtyard was a bronze dragon water fountain that I’d love to have in my yard!

After a great morning of shrine and temple hopping, it was time for lunch.

Kawamichiya-yoro- soba noodle shop in Kyoto

Kawamichiya-yoro- soba noodle shop in Kyoto

Our driver/tour guide dropped us off at a neat old traditional Japanese soba noodle shop, Kawamichiya-yoro, that’s been around since 1910. We also had to take off our shoes before entering the restaurant.

Lunch in Kyoto

Lunch at Kawamichiya-yoro, in Kyoto

We were seated at a “sunken” table, overlooking a quiet garden that opened behind us. It was a fun, cultural experience with tasty soba noodle soup and tempura shrimp on top! Then, off to more unique shrines and temples.

Golden Pavilion is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto

Golden Pavilion is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto

In northern Kyoto, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), which became a Zen temple, was stunning during early sunset. This was a very crowded site, since everyone there wanted a picture of the glowing temple.

It burned down several times throughout its history due to wars and once again in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.

You can see the squares of the gold leaf in the picture above. They look to be perfectly applied, which must have taken many tedious hours…one would either have to practice Zen or go insane!!!

Garden in Kyoto

Ryoanji Temple moss gardens

I loved all the soft-looking moss covering, under the shade of these vintage looking trees! The gardens at Ryoanji Temple were very well maintained and the tourists were respectful to only walk on the paths.

The Tsukubai (wash-basin), in the tea garden, has this inscription “I learn only to be contented.” This important Zen concept goes like this: “He who learns to be contented is spiritually rich, while the one who doesn’t learn to be contented is spiritually poor, even if he has material wealth.”

This simplistic Zen rock garden is a relaxing contrast from the rest of the gardens that are lush and colorful. A Zen monk built it using only 15 rocks and white gravel. The walls were made out of clay boiled in oil, which with time has seeped out, changing the appearance of the original wall.

We did a very fast walk through Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka District. It’s the well preserved old part of Kyoto, lined with gift shops, teahouses and restaurants on both sides of these streets.

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Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka in old part of Kyoto

There were soooo many people!! We were dodging left and right as our guide expertly maneuvered us at a rapid pace through the sea of people. It would be a great place to experience what Kyoto looked like before modernity descended in full force. Just try to go when it’s not so crazy busy!

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The Deva gate at Kiyomizu-dera Temple

We made it as far as Deva gate, the entrance to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. We ran out of time to explore the grounds since we needed to get back to train station for our return to Tokyo.

All in all, we had a great first time visit to Kyoto. It was worth the extra money for the private driver/tour guide. He knew just where to go, at what times places closed and how to get around traffic congestions. We had our hotel concierge at the Park Hyatt Tokyo help us with arranging the private driver/tour guide, which I highly recommend.

また今度ね!

See you next time!