When he passed away about a year ago, my Dad left behind a lifetime of stories that I will remember with tenderness. One of them was about the time he visited Japan in the 90s. He spoke about sumo wrestlers and geishas, and of course, about the incredible food. In particular, some nameless fish that he ate on the train early one day. He would have known too, having grown up close to the Sea in a town known for its fish. He raved about this fish so much he had no words to describe it. That picture is somehow so clear in my mind it was as if I was there. But 20 years would pass before I would visit Japan for the first time.
Currently Japan has a tourist problem. Everyone goes there. The internet is saturated with travel advise of things to do and what to eat and where to go. The relentlessness of this information is overwhelming, and I’m afraid I’m about to add to it. One thing I know, there is SO MUCH to Japan, I don’t think one can ever really grasp it. However, I’ve learned a few good things that I hope will help you in your journey to this magical place.
Taking the limo bus to Tokyo
Waking up in our tiny Tokyo hotel
Where to Land
If your starting point is Tokyo and you’re in a rush, make plans to land in Haneda instead of Narita airport (NRT). We were enlightened by this bit of info AFTER we booked our tickets to fly into NRT. Still this is up for argument. International flights are far more limited flying into and out of Haneda. And there are many ways to get from NRT to Tokyo anyway. We took the comfortable orange limo bus—and the trip took just about an hour to our hotel on a Friday night. Also NRT was great, easy to navigate, with many helpful English-speaking personnel to help tourists. We even managed to get four different sets of tickets for our trip in a counter with what looked like small supercomputers that gave you every kind of ticket. Still, if you must, then consider that Haneda airport is just 15 kilometers to Tokyo while Narita is about 60km away.
Where to Stay in Tokyo
I hate telling people where to stay but I can’t help but recommend Roppongi Hills because it was a great area for food as well as art, and we felt safe with the kids. Throw in a park or two. Some people believe the area is sleazy and there’s a warning about questionable bars that target tourists, but we saw none of that. A note about the Roppongi Subway Station: it is the deepest subway station in all of Japan at 42 meters down at its deepest point. Imagine that. If you find that somewhat creepy please know that I’m not the biggest fan of subways either (I used to get massive anxiety) but I used this subway anyway, and happily. Here’s more info about Roppongi Station.
Where to stay in Kyoto
We stayed in this Airbnb in Kyoto and had a wonderful time. It is located in Nakagyo ward, one of Kyoto’s 11, our point of reference being the Enmachi Station, which was just three minutes from our little house. We loved the simple but comfortable accommodations, the modern, quintessentially-Japanese comforts (hello heated toilet seat), and our hosts were warm, friendly and extremely helpful. The stairs that lead to the bedroom is Japanese style and a bit narrow and steep. But also keep in mind there’s a Nintendo Famicon in the living room that the kids just flipped over. The general neighbourhood is also just so peaceful and quiet, with a lot of good restaurants nearby.
Near Enmachi Station, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto
We used the subway a lot in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and also the bus in Kyoto. We took a cab probably twice to get to the subway stations with our luggage because that was the easiest way with kids with us. Also, Google Maps is your friend, until it isn’t (I can’t stress reliable, solid, wifi enough). You can start planning your route before you arrive in Japan and Google Maps shows everything down to the train line number, and sometimes even delay advisories. It’s almost flawless, just get your wifi or data sorted out. Our Suica Card, the green one with the penguin, was another hit. It’s a smart card that you load with cash in a machine to use in subways and in other ways. Don’t waste precious time figuring out how much your route will cost every time you use the subway, which is sort of what you’ll end up doing if you pay in cash. The card worked in the subways within Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, as well as the Kyoto city buses. It makes this adorable chirping sound especially for kids when you tap them going through the readers. And if you haven’t used up all of your card it’s totally fine. It expires in ten years! NOTE: Make sure you tap them every time you enter and exit. You miss tapping them once and they stop working. You’ll have to have the card swiped at a counter to be usable again. Very not fun if you’re rushing to your platform. Also, kids 6-11 years old get 50% off the fares. You must present their passport when buying them a card.
“Tourist Traps” and Unexpected Gems
We went to see the Hachico Memorial Statue in Shibuya and let’s just say the kids didn’t even want a photo. Look, it’s a wonderful true story about a dog and his master. But it will stay that way whether or not you see the statue. It was also SO crowded when we got there. Probably because it’s just a few steps away from the Shibuya Crossing, which should be the thing. Yes it’s just an intersection and it’s been talked about so much and there are videos and photos (some very good ones) but none do the Scramble real justice. We crossed at around 10am on a Saturday and there is a rush to be felt in the midst of it. My advise is to just walk and forget the picture taking. Please don’t be that tourist. And if you’d rather appreciate the Scramble from a distance there are cafes nearby where you can sit and do coffee with great views of the crossing unfolding before you.
Maman Spider Sculpture, Roppongi Hills
21 21 Design Sight Gallery
Another one we enjoyed was 21-21 Design Sight Gallery in Roppongi. The building was designed by architect Tadao Ando and fashion designer Issey Miyake and had some wonderful art when we visited. The gallery is at the other end of pretty Hinokicho Park, with its dark green and orange foliage and little ponds. It was a Sunday and the picnic area was filled with young families from the neighbourhood watching their kids play, walking their dogs, or just snacking on picnic blankets. We also really enjoyed the Mori tower—the 54-storey building with an art gallery and an observation deck with one of the best views of the city. Just make sure you get tickets before hand as the lines can be long. On a clear day, you can even see Mt. Fuji. We didn’t catch it from the Mori Tower, but we did take the Shinkansen or bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto the very next day which is something we highly recommend. The trains are a marvel. We rode the fastest Nozomi train, sat on the right side, and in about 40 minutes into the journey, Mt. Fuji, magnificent and mysterious, came into view. It was cloudy and it wasn’t the best view, but it was good enough to give us goose bumps.
Whimsical paper models at the gallery
Kyoto & Osaka
We planned to visit the Manga Museum, but it was suddenly closed on the day and that was a real bummer. The Nishiki Market caters to tourists more than anything, and not entirely recommended by the locals we asked. But we still managed to grab some yummy eats. At least it wasn’t nearly as crowded as Fushimi Inari Shrine. Truly the crowds ruin things. I have no doubt the shrine would be the most serene place to visit had there not been one billion other people there. I don’t know how the people of Kyoto put up with it, to be honest. There were locals in prayer at the time of our visit, and it felt like the mere presence of tourists, with all the selfie sticks and tour groups, was a real intrusion.
In Osaka, we just had a day, and decided to spend it at the Aquarium. If you’re arriving by subway, Osakako Station is the end point, and it’s a bit of a walk to the Aquarium. But you will be rewarded by the variety of the marine life and knowledge to be had in this place. My personal favourite was the jellyfish. There’s also a food arcade right outside with lots to choose from. We spent a good full day at this place. As usual, don’t forget to book tickets ahead of time.
The English Problem
Coming from the Philippines, where English is a second language, it was a small shock to discover first hand how little English is spoken in Japan. Mostly older people spoke decent, conversational English. With a certain accent that I can only describe as nostalgic.The younger ones, not so much. But you know what, it’s fine. Just do your part as well and take the time to learn and speak some Japanese and most people will be willing to help. It’s funny looking back. I’ll never forget the translation app our server in Sukiya used. It worked! Or how a young guy from one of the JR companies led us into the wrong train in Kyoto. And especially when I tried calling a restaurant to make a last minute reservation and the guy on the other end yelled, “We don’t speak English! This is Japan!”
I had my must-eats for this trip and got to do about 90% on my list but I was not prepared for the variety and amount of food in Japan. At one point I kind of ate my list. SO. MUCH. FOOD. In train stations underground, underneath department stores, in top-floor food courts, in the streets, in hidden alleys, in vending machines and konbinis. That’s not even counting the actual restaurants. Eating is clearly a favourite cultural and national occupation and just my kind of thing. Michelin stars and fancy restaurants abound, but it is very easy to eat well in Japan with a more modest budget. Try your best to make reservations in restaurants you intend to try, especially if they offer it.
It’s about a ten minute walk from Shibuya Crossing and a line forms outside this small restaurant, but it moves fast enough. Their specialty is Tsukemen, which you order from a machine in front. A bit laborious especially if you’re hangry, like Gabby was, but never mind. You’ll get a glimpse of the kitchen action in the back. Some guy pouring broth, another one washing the noodles. It’s basically like ramen except the noodles are served separated from the broth and you dip them in before devouring. We got the wheat noodles which come with their signature rich broth made of vegetables, pork bones and seafood. The noodles can get cold rather fast so eat accordingly and make some noise. Address: 2 Chome-10-1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya City, Tokyo 150-0043, Japan +81 3-5459-3956
This ubiquitous Japanese gyudon chain saved us twice. Once when it was raining and kind of freezing in Tokyo because of an unexpected cold spell coupled with a reservation mishap. Gyudon is rice topped with tender beef flavoured with a mildly sweet sauce. It’s basically a beef bowl and considered quick comfort food in Japan. Sukiya is the leading gyudon chain with 2,000 stores. The two stores we ate in were a bit worn but otherwise clean and there was always a random local or three, either an office worker or a student grabbing a quick bite. The food is cheap and reliable, a beef bowl with some miso soup, an egg. And even some little toys with the kid’s meals. Sukiya.jp
The biggest metro station in Tokyo is also a foodie haven. We took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from this massive station, but not before roaming the numerous food shops there and grabbing a bento. Near the Shinkansen platforms is Gransta, where you’ll find small restaurants and kiosks that offer every kind of bento you can imagine. Plus sushi, sashimi, snacks, sweets, salads and other good eats. We took about 30 minutes walking around and making important food decisions, because such decisions are important. So my advise is to plan accordingly if you’re ever in the area or taking a Shinkansen in Tokyo Station. We were all really happy with our picks. I would go to this station just to eat.
Ohagi No Tanbaya
Near Enmachi Station, this little mochi shop recommended by our Airbnb host is right before you cross the street and is hard to miss. An incredible sticky, sweet-savoury aroma wafts its way around the corner from mochi that this old lady grills over flames. It’s mochi like you’ve never had before, because, it’s not mochi. It’s Dango! The difference is Dango are bigger and made of rice flour instead of rice. They are skewered and grilled, and in the case of Miso Dango, smothered in this sweet-miso sauce so incredible it’s practically sorcery. We had to stop ourselves from eating every time we passed by. And that lady who prepared this stuff is incredible too. She always started early and was still at it at the end of each day when we made our way home. Address: ２３ Nishinokyo Enmachi, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-8463, Japan +81 75-463-8580
Special shout out to all the random soft serves in Japan
Nishiki Market, Kyoto
Must-try: Piping hot imitation crab sticks topped with melty mayo and chili flakes
Street Food outside Inari Shrine
Right outside the Inari Shrine lies a stretch of small food stalls and restaurants. It can get crowded with hungry tourists but you’ll find things like chicken karage, pancakes and mochi, wagyu beef skewers that melt in your mouth, oranges with straws stuck in them, and a personal favorite—piping-hot crab sticks smothered in melty mayo and chilli flakes. The stalls are cramped in a small road that leads to a bigger one lined with small restaurants and finally you end up at a train crossing. There’s also a cat cafe called Neko Café TiME, where the kids made a happy 30-minute stop.
Ramen Mugyu, Vol. 1
This small ramen shop in the Enmachi neighbourhood closes “as soon as char sui is sold out”, which probably means they might not be open for dinner. The char siu in question is what goes on top of ramen or comes as a side that you can enjoy with sake. But the real star in my humble opinion is their Nagoya Cochin Chicken, prized for its delicious meat and eggs. At Mugyu they use it to make collagen-rich broth for the ramen. They serve dry soba noodles tossed in cochin oil (?!?), and they also make a simple side of fried chicken to order. That last one basically ruined every other fried chicken for me. Address Nishinokyoencho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-8463, Kyoto (East of Nishioji Marutamachi) mugyu.jp
Our first dinner in Kyoto happened right across the street from our Airbnb. We almost did not get in (there are only about 8 seats in a counter and reservations are highly recommended), but thanks to Kenji, our Airbnb host, we were soon sitting with our sleepy kids in this tiny restaurant having dinner at 8. The lady who runs it and does the main cooking is lively and motherly and it feels very much like you’re eating in someone’s home. We had fresh, raw mackerel with gingered vinegar that was a lip-smacking start to our meal of kamameshi, excellent gyoza, and a steaming hot shoyu-based soup with char siu. The kamameshi is cooked in a wok, and I couldn’t help but notice the cook taking out a big container of powdered spices to add to it. A young lady was eating by herself when we arrived and seemed like a regular, then later an elderly gentleman who spoke excellent English came by for a drink. It’s really the combination of appetite, good food, ambience and company that make a meal memorable. This was easily our best one in Japan. Address: もり２１−２ Nishinokyō Enmachi, Nakagyō-ku, Kyoto, 604-8463, Japan
The Konbinis: Family Mart, 7-Eleven, Lawson
Thanks to the internet, the konbinis or convenience stores in Japan are legendary. And this reputation I have to say, is well-deserved. We walked to a nearby Family Mart almost everyday for breakfast in Tokyo and Kyoto, and sometimes for snacks. TIP: Try to find accommodations in Japan with a Konbini (preferably a Family Mart) nearby if you can. Food is cheap, the quality is amazing, the variety is mind-boggling. We tried the famous egg sandwiches that are very filling and great with hot coffee in the morning. The curry bread was great. They have fresh salads, and we loved taking away those genius onigiri—rice balls wrapped in seaweed and stuffed with a variety of things. There was also pasta, rice meals, excellent milk, ice creams, you name it. Keep in mind though that not all konbini allow customers to eat in. Everything is packaged so well to takeaway it’s practically an art form. One time however, early in morning in a Family Mart in Roppongi, the guy at the counter was kind enough to let us have our salmon nigiri and coffee in a corner of the store. The fish was so fresh and buttery, right there fulfilling my “sushi for breakfast” dreams.
Most of all, do not rush
I saw a sign in one of the stations and it read “Do not rush to your train”. A message for both the locals and tourists alike. We felt that mostly in Tokyo, the energy, the crowds, the speed. Trains and buses are always on time, and it will not be far-fetched to miss your train or to get on the wrong one if you’re not alert. That’s it really, everything seems to work in Japan. The streets are clean, people follow the rules, it feels almost robotic, until you stop rushing and really look. One time, a group of very flamboyantly dressed men and women burst out of the sushi place we were entering in Roppongi, obviously drunk, at 11 in the morning. And the Japanese like to sit down in cafes. They’re so good at it—cafe-ing. I remember two women in their 60s doing exactly that. One listening earnestly to the sad story of the other. And it was golden hour in Tokyo when I caught a glimpse through a window of four or five office executives, so elegant in their black suits, huddled in what seemed like the last meeting before the weekend.
About the fish. I realised that the only way you can eat a meal on a train is on the Shinkansen. I decided that this was how my father met that glorious fish that he spoke so highly of. In Tokyo Station this had to be from a bento box. I had secretly done what the grief-stricken do. I told myself that if I found the fish, or something like it, and that if it was good, that it would be a sign from my father. After walking around for 30 minutes, almost picking something entirely different at one point, I bought my bento from one of the shops in the back. When the time came, I nervously ate the main part of it, a fish whose name I can’t even remember. Covered in a smoky glaze, flaky, buttery, tasting like the Sea my father loved so much, it was the star of an otherwise simple meal that I will never forget. And there, somewhere between Tokyo and Kyoto, in a train moving at bullet speed, with fish in my mouth, I wept.