I think it’s safe to say that Japan exceeded all our expectations. Everywhere we went I felt like Japan was a harmony of unlike things, incense and heady sandalwood mixed in with bullet trains and motion sensors, shrines in shades of charcoal right beside cafes with cups in rainbow pastels and toy Totoros. Equal parts tradition and hyper-modernity, austerity and whimsy. One of the things we loved most about Japan was its thoughtfulness — seat backs that swivel depending on the direction of the train (um, genius), bag rests at ticket kiosks so you don’t have to put your duffel on the ground, art on the shutters of closed storefronts. If there was any way for something to be more beautiful or more efficient, it seemed like it was done.
We spent most of our time in Kyoto and Tokyo, with brief hops over to Osaka, Uji, and Nara in between. There were daily bowls of ramen and more-than-daily cups of strong, bitter Japanese coffee; lots and lots and lots of shrines, narrow alleyways, and old bridges; silly hat purchases on Teramachi Street in Kyoto and an impromptu (and over-zealous) matcha crawl in Uji. We tried kaiseki and discovered that we are not man enough for octopus sashimi. And I pretty much lost my mind with excitement the first time we went into a department store food hall. I think I’d need another eight honeymoons (and as many stomachs) to begin to scratch the surface of Japan’s immensity, but for now, here are a few of our very favorite things from our trip:
daimaru department store, basement food hall > Where I almost blacked out from giddiness at the most dizzying array of food stalls ever. There’s also a Paul Bocuse bakery that received a disproportionate amount of my business.
ramen sen no kaze > The coziest ramen shop run by the most stylin’ mother-daughter pair (the ones with those snazzy hats up there!) near Nishiki Market. They serve the most insane melt-in-your-mouth charred chashu, and B2 could not stop raving about the shio ramen he got. (Also, there’s a neat vintage store right nearby!)
manneken belgian waffles > Somehow, I went to Japan for my first liège waffle. They were yeasty and chewy and studded with pearl sugar, and there’s one in Kyoto Station that’s perfect for grabbing one for the train. (Or for the two minutes after buying it while walking to the train.) Matcha and mixed berry were my favorites.
sannenzaka and ninenzaka > There are so many incredible temples and sights to see in Kyoto (we used this guide a lot) but these streets leading up to Kiyomizu-dera Temple were probably our favorites. If you can make it early in the morning when the streets are still empty, it is amazing.
kibune and kurama > A two-hour hike through the cedar forests just outside Kyoto, aka justifying ramen for both lunch and dinner.
kiyamachi-dori (south of gion shijo) > Our AirBnB was a sunny little apartment on this street south of Gion Shijo station, and there’s a maze of alleyways around here that we totally loved.
kyoto gogyo > They serve burnt ramen! Our favorite was actually the regular tonkotsu ramen over the burnt shoyu or burnt miso — there’s still a dollop of burnt broth on top so it has just enough smokiness without overpowering the entire bowl. It tasted like burnt popcorn, but somehow in the best way.
osaka castle park > Osaka Castle is gorgeous, but the walk through this park to get there was almost as fun on its own — we went on a Sunday and the park was full of kiddie baseball games (were we creepy for watching?) and folks jogging or picnicking.
dotonbori > Boardwalks and arcades and all the takoyaki and okonomiyaki in the world.
ramen street in tokyo station > There are a million ramen recommendations out there and I’m pretty sure you can’t go wrong with any of them, but Ramen Street is a hallway
made just for me in Tokyo Station with eight really great ramen shops all in one place. We tried Rokurinsha‘s tsukemen right when they opened at 7:30 AM before catching the bullet train to Kyoto and it was the best coma-inducing breakfast ever, and when we got back from Kyoto we went right back to Ramen Street for a bowl at a different shop.
vagabond > An upstairs nook in Shinjuku with live jazz (and little bowls of arare mix to go with!)
sasazuka > Another neighborhood we found through our AirBnB — it’s one stop from Shinjuku on the Keio line and we thought it was a total gem and a refreshing change of pace. There are alleyways a few minutes’ walk from the subway station that are filled with shops and little restaurants, including a ramen shop with tsukemen that we thought rivaled Rokurinsha’s.
uji byodoin omotesando > We might never have gone to Uji except that I booked a night in a ryokan there, and I’m so glad we did because it’s magical. And there’s a street completely devoted to matcha (find the matcha cream puffs if you go!)
convenience stores (yep) > In an ideal world I would like a second stomach dedicated only to meals constructed from bags of chips and matcha cookies from FamilyMarts, 7-11s and Lawson’s. (Also, actually useful — all the FamilyMarts have free Wi-Fi, in case you ever get lost without a pocket Wi-Fi!)
coffee > I don’t think it’s possible to find a bad coffee anywhere in Japan, although it seems like most places serve a cup that is stronger and more bitter than you usually find over here. We loved all the coffee we tried, whether it was a $9 splurge at a smoky, old-school mahogany-paneled salon or a to-go cup from a chain.
rainy season > If you couldn’t guess from the overwhelming number of ominous clouds in this post, we found ourselves in Japan during their rainy season. Somehow neither of us realized that Japan even had a rainy season until we landed in Tokyo and pulled up a weather forecast that showed a baffling 10 days of nonstop rain. The rain made some things more difficult (and some Chucks extremely soggy) but it’s nice in other ways — tourism is supposed to be a tad slower, the weather isn’t quite as gruelingly hot as it tends to get in Asia in late July and August, and we felt lucky to get a few drier spells here and there for hikes and long walks. (Plus, moody photos!)
pocket wi-fi > If you plan to AirBnB it like we did, look for ones with free pocket Wi-Fi thrown in — we thought these were so darn useful and a game-changer when our feeble Japanese was, well, really feeble. Otherwise, I think you can rent a pocket Wi-Fi from certain places, and a ton of the train stations and even some of the shopping areas have free Wi-Fi. (And all FamilyMarts!)
other (better) guides > Lovely Steph over at I am a Food Blog actually lived (!) in this wondrous country for a spell and has some magical guides on her blog that we consulted before our trip; if you are vegetarian (and even if you’re not), Jeanine at Love & Lemons has some wonderful tips on Kyoto and more; Beth at Local Milk also has a new series of absolutely breathtaking wander guides on Japan. And for general information, we found that Inside Kyoto and Japan Guide were quick and easy resources.
If, inexplicably, you aren’t totally sick of my iPhone snaps, this Flickr album has even more photos from our trip (plus more of B2’s Instax fun!) Thank you so much for your lovely recommendations, and for your incredible comments on our last few posts — every single one made us smile so big. They meant the world!