Sunday, April 16, 2017

japan 2017: tokyo

I've mentioned on the blog before that every now and then, mine and H's schedules align and we are able to plan a trip. It doesn't happen often, and when we do end up with a free weekend, we try to visit family in Houston. However, for the first time since starting residency in July 2016, I had the option of taking a full 5 days off in a row (!!!) while H did not have any major deadlines or commitments. We seized the opportunity and planned a big trip- Japan! We very randomly found a great deal on tickets through Air Canada, and booked the trip in late January. While I know a week in Japan is not nearly enough time and almost not worth the money, we didn't have a way to make the trip longer. The most I can take off with my residency program is 5 work days in a row (and even then, it's only select months I can do that), so if we ever want an extended trip, that's the longest time I'll have. When you don't get many chances to vacation, you take the risk of having a jam-packed and exhausting vacation. Besides, when am I ever not tired? Might as well be tired while experiencing an exciting new culture and country. We spent a total of 1 week in Japan, and of course, I desperately wish we could have stayed much longer. Tip- if you do travel to Japan, plan for atleast a solid 2 weeks. There's just too much to see/do/take in, and you won't be doing the country justice with anything less. That said, here's a diary of our trip- the things we did/saw/loved, foods we ate, and where we stayed! I will be dividing up posts based on the areas we visited- Tokyo, Kyoto, and Mt. Koya.

Day 1:
Our flight landed at Narita International Airport in the afternoon, which had given us the hope that we would be able to get in atleast a late afternoon's worth of exploring near our ryokan. Unfortunately it took way longer than expected to go through customs, get our Japan rail passes, pick up our hotspot wifi, and make it all the way from the airport to near our ryokan (about a 2 hour journey). By the time we made it to our ryokan, we were exhausted and gathered just enough energy to find a random Udon restaurant at 10 pm. After eating dinner, we just headed back to the ryokan and passed out. For our first 2 nights in Tokyo, we stayed at Kimi Ryokan. Neither H nor I have ever stayed in a hostel before, so this was a new experience for both of us. Thankfully it was a positive one! I had been warned that lodging in Tokyo is expensive, and we had decided while planning the trip that we wanted to experience staying at a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, atleast once during the trip. Kimi Ryokan ended up being a budget-friendly, traditional, clean, and incredibly comfortable experience.

Day 2:
We were up by about 6 am the next morning and ready to get out and explore. The sun rose around 5:30am during our time in Japan, so it was hard to sleep in in a room without curtains. We quickly got ready and headed out of the ryokan. First stop was breakfast at one of the many bakeries we found throughout our trip. One of my favorite things about our trip was how incredibly convenient, easy to navigate, and clean the train stations were. Public transport in Japan is amazing. All of the train stations we visited had huge shopping centers, restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, and convenience stores. It was a one-stop place for anything you could ever need. We ducked into the first bakery we saw at Ikebukuro train station, Vie de France. I was mainly drawn to the impressively perfect appearing baked goods lined up in the window. We ate at so many bakeries throughout our trip (my jeans definitely felt tighter by the end) because they were so fresh and convenient. While I would usually seek out highly rated places to eat on vacation, we prioritized seeing and doing as much as we could on this trip, so breakfast everyday was a 20 minute stop at any bakery close by. I obviously had to buy extra baked goods to go for the day in case we weren't close to food. Or because everything just looked too delicious to pass up.

After breakfast, we hopped on a train and headed to Shibuya because I wanted to check out the world's busiest pedestrian crossing. Of course, since it was mid-morning, the street wasn't as packed as usual. Nonetheless, it was an exciting sight.

We then wandered around some shops in the area and soon found our phone batteries were already low thanks to Google Maps. We ducked into a coffee shop and planned the rest of our day as our phones charged and we grabbed some espresso. H and I both really enjoy visiting museums, so we decided to visit The National Art Center of Tokyo to see the Yayoi Kusama exhibit 'My Eternal Soul' and The Ghibli Museum. On our way to The National Art Center, we walked through one of my favorite spontaneous finds of the trip- Aoyama Cemetery. While a cemetery may seem like a strange site to walk through on a vacation, this was the most serene and beautiful cemetery I have ever seen. The headstones were intricate and enormous. I didn't take pictures initially because there were people visiting graves and it just seemed wrong. However, I did capture the first (of many) cherry blossom trees that lined a road in the cemetery (I only took out my camera when I saw others doing the same)!

The first of many, many, many cherry blossom photos 

The National Art Center was a 5 minute walk from the cemetery. While I wish we could have stayed at the museum longer (theme of this entire trip), there was just way too much we wanted to see and do while in Tokyo. We saw just the Kusama exhibit, and it did not let me down.

Walking to the Art Center and the wrapped trees as part of the Kusama exhibit were already getting me excited

Stunning architecture inside The National Art Center of Tokyo

(photography was allowed in part of the exhibit)

After the Art Center, our next planned stop was the Tsukiji Fish Market. Known for being the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and the famous super early morning tuna auctions, this place was a must-see on my list. Unfortunately, we didn't plan ahead of time and realized around 2 pm that the fish market closes at 3:30 pm most days. With it being our last full day in Tokyo, we had to race over to catch the last 30 minutes of the market. Although I'm not a huge fan of raw fish (I only eat cooked sushi, and no way was I going to embarrass myself by even asking for a cooked option while in Japan), fresh sashimi was still something I wanted to see and maybe experience the world's smallest bite of. We made it just in time to catch some of the last fresh tuna sashimi and watch vendors close up for the day.

Giant tuna head

Fresh sashimi (that I only had the smallest bite of)

After the Tsukiji Fish Market, we had just enough time left in the day to head over to the Ghibli museum. By the end of our hour-long journey there, it was starting to get dark and windy. The forecast for the day had called for some rain the evening, so we figured spending time indoors at the museum would have been perfect. We walked through the beautiful Inokashira Park on our way and stopped multiple times to take pictures. The storm clouds had rolled in pretty suddenly which created a grayish-green overcast, and it had started sprinkling before we got to the museum. Following the signs through the park to get to the museum, we eventually saw one that had "reservation only". Exhausted, saddened, and looking to get out of the rain, we begrudgingly started taking our path back through the park to get to the nearest station and head back to the ryokan. We stopped again to take more pictures in the park on our way back, and just stayed long enough for it to start pouring down rain. We ran to the nearest building we could find that was open- an outdoor bathroom. With a few other people who got caught in the downpour, we hid out for about 10 minutes. After the rain let up, we walked over to the nearest restaurant we found and had a quick meal. Then it was back to the ryokan cold, wet, and exhausted.

Day 3:
The next morning, we got up really early and packed up to check out of our ryokan as early as we could. We had our train station bakery breakfast (again) and took a bullet train to Kyoto by mid-morning. We wanted to get to Kyoto as soon as possible so we could catch some outdoor things on our list before sunset. The train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto was 2.5 hours and much more enjoyable than travelling in a plane. It was our first look at Japan outside of the busy city of Tokyo, at it did not disappoint. We even caught a peek at Mount Fiji on the ride. The remainder of our trip was spent in Kyoto and Mt. Koya, with a brief return to Tokyo before heading out. When we came back to Tokyo from Mt. Koya, we had a more clear cut plan of the last things we had to see on our trip before heading back to Dallas. I will be posting more about our stays in Kyoto and Mt. Koya, so stay tuned!


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