Wandering: Journey to the East
Our graphic designer, Leesa Mealing, has just returned from a two week adventure through Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. Take a peak at her travels and some of her must-see spots!
Everyone tells you how amazing Japan is but I don’t think I fully understood just what they meant until we arrived. We touched down late on a Tuesday evening in the middle of Golden Week, a week of festivities and public holidays celebrated throughout Japan. Even at 11pm, the streets of Osaka were filled with people walking and riding along, of all ages and genders. Then we noticed was how many bikes lined the paths…and that they were mostly unlocked! We took that as a confirmation of how safe Japan is and didn’t ever really get the worry that can come with arriving at night to a foreign country. Dinner was sourced from one of the only stores open…Seven 11!
Our first couple of days were spent in Osaka. A tasty breakfast was found at City Bakery (um pretzel croissants, hells yeah!) before challenging my fear of heights by going up Umeda Sky Building via a glass elevator (hells no!) recovering with tasty weird snacks and drinks from convenience stores and vending machines, then challenging my fear of heights again as climbed up and up inside Osaka Palace.
We wandered the long shopping street that is Shinsaibashi. Our last night in Osaka was spent devouring delicious food at Dotonbori – we went to a place that did amazing okonomiyaki (a savoury pancake) before stopping in at a couple of the tiny on-street bars. We were having such a great time, we decided to kick on at a karaoke bar, Kama Sutra just near Dotonbori…and oh, was it fun! We chatted with the owner, we sang with lovely locals, strangers bought us drinks and the night was easily a big highlight for us. A lot of karaoke in Japan occurs in private rooms, but unless you are with a group, finding a bar is the best way to enjoy it!
The next day, we caught a high-speed train to Kyoto, a place overflowing with impressive temples, shrines and gorgeous parks nestled at the bottom of mountains. A short walk from our accommodation was the Kyoto Imperial Palace, surrounded by well-tended shrines and gardens. We walked through the palace grounds and out the other side up to Pontochō is a Hanamachi district, along the river side. It was a beautiful and all along the river, people rode bikes, walked and jogged along. Some sat enjoying picnics on blue tarps, shoes removed placed neatly on the grass beside them. A group of teenagers sang while musicians took advantage of the amplification from playing under bridges. It was all very peaceful and beautiful, so different from the hustle and bustle of Osaka.
We explored so many shrines, palaces and temples in Kyoto, the days all blurred together a little, broken up with tasty food from local izakayas, ramen from Omen, and fun snack foods from Seven Eleven. Japan is of course, famous for it’s tea so you can imagine our excitement when we discovered the most delicious coffee by Arabica in Higashiyama. Located at the bottom of the shop-lined streets, stop off for a coffee before you wander up that lead you up to the Shōhō-ji Temple and Kyoto Ryozen Gokoku Shrine. You can easily spend a day wandering in and out of the beautiful stores, stocking up lovely ceramics sake and tea sets (check in they say Made in Japan!), fragrant incense, detailed fans and other quirky souvenirs.
Another must is the Fushimi Inari Shrine, comprised of paths lines with vibrant orange archways that were built to honour Imari, the Shinto god of rice – it’s also a popular spot for photos! The paths snake around the bottom half of the mountain, steadily climbing up but around halfway you can take an exit and keep going up the mountain via a bamboo forest. It’s incredibly beautiful to see all that tall bamboo swaying gently in the wind and there will be significantly less people on that path.
Kyoto has so much to offer, you can easily spend a week just exploring the many shrines but we felt the need to break them up. We ventured out to Kyoto Brewing Co and sampled a drop or two in the sun. They don’t always have food trucks so it’s good to bring your own food if you plan on sticking around. We didn’t and were envious of the clever Japanese family eating beautifully presented sushi beside us! We spent an afternoon and evening in Gion – this is an area is known for it’s amazing food. Of course we also hit up the shrines, but we found a tiny little izakaya that did the best yakatori (chicken skewers) I’ve ever eaten! We also tried Umeshu (plum wine) and matcha ice cream before heading home.
One common tourist spot that you really shouldn’t miss is Arashiyama. It’s a bit of a trip to get to but totally worth it, located on a river with things to see and do on both sides of the bridge. We found the another Arabica store, charging up on coffee before we did a 2km walk up a mountain to The Iwatayama Monkey Park. It was totally worth it, with wild monkeys roaming freely about beside you. Lunch was a bit of non-starter for me since I don’t really eat seafood…so I had a Sakura ice cream! Sakura is the Japanese word for cherry blossom and it was even yummier than it looked! We also wandered through the Bamboo Forest that is located near the main bus stops. That evening we visited a Before 9, a very hip looking bar in Kyoto that has lots of local beers on tap, sake for non-beer drinkers and a tasty menu.
Our final day was spent riding bikes throughout Kyoto like the locals, working off all that yummy food we consumed! We visited the Golden Temple (another must-see) and had a little matcha tea break. We managed to find a vegetarian place for dinner, Falafel Garden, which is a great place to check out especially if you are need of a little variety.
The next day we were off to Tokyo, by way of Nara to visit the giant Buddha and deer park.
The pace in Kyoto had been slower, more relaxed and more traditional whereas we hit the ground running in Tokyo. Our first day there we had a healthy breakfast at the stunning Nicolai Bergmann Flowers & Design not too far from Shibuya. There are so many darling little stores around that area that we wandered through before making our way to Harajuku. The main street of Harajuku is an explosion of colour, so many sights and sounds all vying for your attention at once. Here is where you’ll find quirky phone cases, sunglasses and all manner of specific sub-culture stores with everything from vintage stores to gothic shoe stores. For a caffeine hit, we dropped by Mojo Coffee but if you have a sweet tooth, you won’t want to miss the Santa Monica Crepery, it’s windows lined with replica crepes that look good enough to eat! There’s even a shrine or two to see in Harajuku!
We stumbled on Bills on our way back to train, which sounded perfect for us. Ricotta pancakes were the dish of choice for the locals, while we went with Australian classics – corn fritters and bacon and avocado on toast.
My absolute favourite day in Tokyo was spent in Shimokitazawa, a quieter neighbourhood tucked in amongst the hustle and bustle. The houses and artisanal stores that line the streets are full of personality and style, with lush little gardens interrupting the endless pavement. We grabbed an iced coffee Bear Pond Espresso before trying on endless outfits in vintage stores. We had Omurice for lunch, a popular dish that is a fusion of Japanese and Western style food and I cannot recommend it enough!
In Shinjuku, we explored a variety of record stores, all though we had the best success in Face Records. We also found an incredible music shop filled with gorgeous guitars where my husband found his dream bass…and bought it! There are loads of tiny bars in the area so we grabbed a drink near there. While in the bar we met the loveliest New Zealander who showed us how to Ichiran! Ichiran is a chain of ramen places but it helps to have someone explain it because the process is a little wanting daunting if you don’t speak Japanese… you order your dinner at a vending machine, then you look at board with red and green lights to see what seats are vacant before sitting down at your little curtained bench. You can just make out your servers hands as they pass you a piece of paper to fill out – how fatty you’d like your broth, how firm you’d like your noodles, what type of meat you’d like and how much spice you’d like. It’s a fun slightly weird experience that I recommend everyone has!
The next day we were off exploring Asakusa Shin-Nakamise in the rain. The area is lined with shops but it was tricky to explore with the umbrellas poking up here and there so decided to move on fairly quickly to our next stop, Kappabashi Kitchen Town! If you love cooking or are a bit of ceramics fiend, then this is the place for you. We went a little crazy and bought a set of noodle bowls, side plates, a serving plate or two, a sake set…and a few other things. It was an effort to get a big load of ceramics and a bass guitar home but totally worth it! That night after a quick curry from Curry House CoCo that was divine, we decided to try our luck in Golden Gai. Golden Gai is a small section of streets that are filled with microscopic bars, each with their own theme, most setting no more than 6 people at a time! Most places charge the tourists, some will only accept locals or those who speak Japanese but after twenty minutes with no luck (and more than one bump on the head from the tiny door ways) we found a bar that accepted tourists freely and had room for us! We met two other couples traveling throughout Japan and compared our stories, tips and plans for the coming days.
Our final day in Tokyo was spent exploring through the suburb of Ebisu, a slightly more high-end area than Shimokitazawa, filled with beautiful boutique stores and hairdressers that looked like cafes. I was fooled on multiple occasions! We stocked up on gifts from Daiso and bought a second suitcase in a crazy mega store called Donkihote. Most people know Daiso because they have stores here in Australia, but Donkihote is quite an experience – they sell everything from groceries to beauty, clothing and footwear to alcohol and Louis Vitton bags…and some stores are open 24 hrs, the others close at 3am.
With an extra suitcase procured from Donkihote, we packed our bags and began the final leg of our trip, an overnight stay in the mountains of Hakone. We stayed at Laforet Club in Gora, a gorgeous ryokan with onsens (Japanese hotel with public bathhouse) that took multiple types of trains to get to including two different cable cars. Our accommodation had a private bathtub on the balcony that on a clear day would see Mount Fuji. Unfortunately neither day we were there were clear but it was still a stunning view.
Feeling refreshed and relaxed we made our way back to Osaka on yet another high-speed train where we spent our last night, heading back to the Dotonbori area for another incredible meal. The next day we flew home to Sydney with two overstuffed (and overweight) suitcases and a big smile on our faces!