It was a Sunday morning on Sept. 16, 2018 in Tifton, GA. Ryan and I were sitting in the hotel room lobby eating breakfast the morning after Ryan’s cousin’s wedding. Ryan had spent some of the previous evening chatting with his cousin Josh about his trip to Japan some time ago. This brings us to the pivotal conversation Ryan and I had over our hotel breakfast that morning as Ryan expressed to me, “I really want to go to Japan.” This isn’t something I hadn’t heard before. Ryan has wanted to go to Japan for as long as I’ve known him and then some. However this time his expression was different. It wasn’t simply him stating a bucket listed desire, but rather a statement of intent. We left that breakfast brainstorming different dates that we could possibly make this trip happen within the next year. By the time we were back home in Lakeland that evening we had decided on early April and began our hunt for plane tickets. A few weeks later, once again on a Sunday morning, we were getting ready for church when Ryan calmly said, “hey babe, those flights we were looking at just dropped $200 each.” It was decided. We booked the flights and AirBnB that day and didn’t look back. We were a little in shock as we stared at the email confirmation for our flights to TOKYO, JAPAN. A country we both desired to visit for so long on the other side of the world.
I think there was much anticipation because somehow we knew it was going to be the trip of a lifetime. With each component we planned for this trip the more ecstatic we got. There were things that tried to get in the way of our excitement (never forget the week from hell when we thought my passport wouldn’t be here by the time we left), but nothing could quite snuff out the anticipation for what was to come.
The day came – April 2, 2019. Neither of us could hardly sleep the night before. We got into my grandparent’s car and took off for the airport for a long day of travel. We flew from Tampa to Dallas and then in Dallas we boarded our giant plane, with the SMALLEST seats of all time for Tokyo. Our flight was about 12 hours long and when we landed it was already the early evening April 3 in Tokyo. Talk about confusing! The confusion didn’t end there either – lets just say navigating Tokyo’s extensive train system, with two huge suitcases during the middle of after work rush is a daunting task. Nevertheless we couldn’t believe we were actually in Japan!
So this blog post is already lengthy, but if you’re up for it, I want to tell you about our trip of a lifetime! Photos and all. So if you’re here for it – here we go. This is our two weeks in Tokyo, Japan!
Our first full day had an early wake up call thanks to jet lag. We didn’t mind though because we were so pumped to start exploring the city! I’m going to keep it real with y’all and let you know I obsessively had an itinerary for each day. Not like every minute planned, but definitely had an agenda of great things to see for each day. I knew coming into this trip that there would be the possibility of seeing cherry blossoms or sakura as they call them in Japan. I was keeping an eye on the sakura forecast before our trip and started thinking we may not see many as they started blooming a good week and a half before we left. (They say sakura season is really only 2 weeks long!) So I had planned anything that focused on viewing sakura right in the first few days of the trip.
We were in serious luck! Not only did we not miss the blossoms, but they were in full bloom when we got there! And to top it off, we pretty much saw sakura on the trees throughout our entire trip! I kind of find it silly that I was so worried about it now.
S0 for our first full day we headed over to the Chiyoda region to Chidorigafuchi Park. We were instantly met with HUNDREDS of sakura trees all exploding with white and blush blooms. It was honestly magical. This “park” is really more of a lovely walkway alongside the Chidorigafuchi moat, one of the many moats that surrounds the Imperial Palace grounds. However this moat is extra awesome because not only is it lined with sakura trees, but you can also rent a little row boat and enjoy the view from the water! As soon as I saw this was a possibility in our research I knew I would not rest until our butts were sitting in one of those boats on the water. It truly was a surreal moment as Ryan rowed us along the calm waters dotted with sakura petals.
After our boat ride we continued to explore the Imperial Gardens region. The emperor lives in pretty tight digs. I also think its really cool that he’s chill with millions of people visiting his garden everyday. I’m glad too because it’s beautiful! It’s not like the White House were there’s a big yard out in front and you have to see it through a gate. While you can’t actually access the Emperor’s actual home you can explore the East Gardens of the palace and see the famous bridge all for free! This couldn’t have been a more perfect start to our trip!
Once we left the Imperial Gardens we made our way over to Tokyo Station to hit up Ramen Street for lunch! Tokyo Station is MASSIVE. It’s basically an entire mall up in there and then some. They have a little section in the station totally dedicated to Ramen! If you know Ryan then you know ramen is a large reason why we made this trip happen. With us looking to open a ramen restaurant locally, Ryan wanted to make sure he had lots of bowls of ramen in it’s birth country before opening a spot of his own. We picked a shop in Tokyo Station that specialized in miso ramen. You guys – I know this is early on in the trip, but it was the best thing we ate the entire time there. We were low key bummed that this happened so soon, but also just so happy to have tasted it. Miso in America pales in comparison to the real deal in Japan. The broth was so creamy, the noodles were nice and thick and all the toppings perfectly complimented the goodness of the broth.
After that the jet lag really set in and we were WIPED. So we decided to head back for a nap. However we wanted to go out one last time again to Naka-Meguro to see the famous canal lined with sakura. Once again we were met with a beautiful sight! We weren’t the only ones here for it either. One thing I noticed about Japanese people is they get excited and love to take photos of all the things tourist get excited about too, haha! It was like being a Disney World. Needless to say it was a great way to cap the first full day of our trip. And man did it wipe us OUT.
Another jam packed day! So you may be asking, what the heck is “hanami?” It’s the Japanese custom tradition of enjoying the flowers! How sweet right? 🙂 Well not only did we get our hanami on the day before, we continued participating in this tradition on this day!
We didn’t start the day with hanami, but we did begin at the Tsukiji fish market! This market, located close to Ginza is a perfect way to start a not-so American day. In America, or at least in the south, our idea of breakfast is a big bowl of creamy grits with eggs and bacon on the side. Not in Japan. Here it’s totally normal to spend your morning meandering the tight alleys of the Tsukiji market trying all sorts of street food. This was another important component of research Ryan wanted to conduct while we were on this trip. So we didn’t skimp on things to try! We left the market feeling like we were going to explode.
When planning for this trip I consulted a YouTuber named Paolo de Guzman for a lot of Tokyo travel tips! He has a great video on street food to try at Tsukiji market and I think we just about hit them all up! Things that we both really liked: the fried pork nugget thing (looks like a hashbrown from McDonald’s but is full of super juicy pork!), Chinese dumpling, the fatty tuna bowl with soy sauce, the cornbeef like stew on rice! Things we didn’t quite care for: tamagoyaki (egg on a stick- too fishy), the uni bun (charcoal bun with uni, Paolo’s favorite but not great for our American palettes), and Ryan didn’t like his intestine stew… I wonder why lol.
From the market we rolled ourselves over to Hamarikyu Gardens. Okay, so I think this was one of my most favorite places we visited on the trip. We were constantly floored by the parks and gardens Tokyo had to offer. For it being such a metropolitan city we loved how they have dedicated so many large greenspaces for beautiful parks and gardens. Hamarikyu was a show stopper. You could easily spend 2-3 hours wandering around this space. We definitely got our Hanami on here! Despite that it’s surrounded by huge skyscrapers you almost forget you’re in the biggest city in the world while wandering around here. There’s also a traditional teahouse on the grounds were you can enjoy a green tea here. You even have to take off your shoes and sit on the floor. We didn’t love the tea (being American naturally we were missing our sweetners), but it still was such a peaceful moment getting to sit in the teahouse.
Still craving more sakura views we took a train to Ueno Park! This spot was covered with people enjoying hanami with their friends and family. There were also a bunch of food trucks and stalls armed with yummy treats. We snacked on ice cream and a delicious crepe (the Japanese love their crepes!) It was super windy this day so it was really cool getting to see all the sakura petals dance through the wind! One of the best parts about Ueno was the zoo! For ¥600 (~$6) you can enjoy a massive zoo filled with all kinds of interesting animals! The main attraction? The panda bears! There’s even a super organized line queued outside the exhibit to see these cuties. I’m not going to lie, at first we were kind of salty about the line and thought it was ridiculous but those feelings quickly faded away when we saw the panda. It’s so fascinating when you get to see an animal you’ve never seen in person before!
By the time we had explored the zoo we felt like our feet were going to fall off. So after a quick soba noodle dinner we headed back to our AirBnB for the night!
So we had definitely explored some of the more “natural” areas of Tokyo, we were ready to take on the beast that is Shinjuku. This is area is basically the center of Tokyo. From what we could gather it’s where majority of the locals go to work. Fun fact about Shinjuku Station – it’s the busiest train station in the entire world. It’s estimated that 3.5 million people use the station each day. I believe it! This station is fast paced and crammed with people trying to catch a connecting train or get to work on time. It, like many of the other large stations is also undergoing lots of renovations in preparation for the 2020 Olympics next summer!
If the station wasn’t already a clue – this ward of Tokyo is extremely lively! Which I think made hitting up Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden at the start of the day a good idea. Once again there were so many people spending their Saturday mornings under the petals of the sakura trees! The best part about this garden was the greenhouse. Definitely the biggest coolest greenhouse either of us had even been in.
After a peaceful start we explored all the bustling streets of Shinjuku, starting with lunch at Fuunji Ramen. This spot we had both read about before so we knew we had to try it. It was the first spot we went to that had a more “traditional” restaurant setting. AKA- like maybe 10 seats for the entire restaurant. So we had to wait in line, but the experience of getting to eat in a small authentic ramen restaurant with the food being prepared right in front of you was so neat!
We browsed through lots of stores and saw the famous Godzilla (which is kind of hilarious to me that they have a giant statue of him). We decided to hit up Golden Gai (a network of 100s of bars packed tightly into a few alleys) during the day since I had read it can be a little difficult to navigate as an American at night. Needless to say it was still cool! We enjoyed a yakitori dinner at a local izakaya before turning in. However right before we caught our train we walked Omide Yockocho. Similar to Golden Gai however much more friendly to tourists. We regretted not getting our yakitori dinner here!
This day had a luxurious start in Ginza. This area is one of the more ritzy and high-end wards of Tokyo and you could definitely tell! When there are casual multilevel store fronts for brands like Giorgio Armani, Louis Vuitton and Chanel you know you’re walking amongst the rich. However Ginza is also home to the largest Uniqlo in the world! Uniqlo is like the Forever 21 or H&M of Japan. They have them in America as well, however since it was the only Japanese brand / clothing store I could afford, that’s the only place I went shopping, haha.
We chose to go to Ginza on Sunday because during the weekends from 12pm – 6pm the main drag in Ginza is closed to vehicles so that shoppers can literally walk the street! It kind of felt like being at a theme park walking on a wide road with a bunch of other people while being surrounded by large structures. It was cool getting to walk on a busy Tokyo street though!
However, the best part about Ginza is all their rooftop terraces. Pretty much every giant department store comes with a roof access to a well manicured terrace. These spots were so great for taking a quick break from walking, plus several of them had amazing views of the streets below!
So our original plan included going to Roppongi for the other half of the day with a quick pit stop at Tokyo Tower on our way there. We took the train to the tower and then got epically distracted by what the area of Minato City had to offer. It started with a random shrine we stumbled upon, then being completely mesmerized by the structure that is Tokyo Tower. As we kept walking to see the tower from a different angle we found a park with a ton of people hanging out with their dogs. Intrigued by what was going on there we found another huge shrine! Seriously one of the biggest ones we saw the whole trip. And the whole time we explored Minato City we had the picturesque view of Tokyo Tower in the background. Although we never made it to Roppongi, I think Minato City ended up being a better and more surprising experience!
We went from one of the warmest, sunniest days while we were there to a super chilly, cloudy one! But it still was the perfect day to explore the ward of Asakusa! This area hosts one of the biggest tourist attractions in all of Tokyo: Sensoji Temple! It makes sense why it’s a tourist attraction, its a massive, beautiful shrine! Leading up to Sensoji is a street named Nakamise Dori. Both sides of this street are lined with different stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs. Also around the temple are a bunch of food tents. We enjoyed kaarage (fried chicken) and Ryan didn’t enjoy takoyaki (a ball of fried octopus). In fact he says it’s the nastiest thing he had the entire trip, haha! I knew I wasn’t adventurous enough to try octopus… glad I didn’t! However I do think it’s really funny I have a photo of him eating his least favorite thing in disgust lol.
Something super good we ate in Asakusa? Japanese style pancakes at Benitsuru! Once again this was a find from one of Paolo’s YouTube videos. Japanese style pancakes and way bigger and fluffier than American pancakes. You’d think they’d be super dense, but they’re actually very light and airy! Its obvious the owner of Benitsuru takes his craft very seriously. In fact you can only eat there with a reservation and it has to be made on the day of. So what ends up happening is by lunchtime all the reservations are taken! In fact we got there only an hour after it opened and would have had to wait until 4:30pm to eat if we both wanted to order something – crazy! So we ended up making a reservation at 12:30 and just shared. You’re probably wondering, why we’re eating pancakes for lunch? Well that’s another different Japanese thing… while Americans eat pancakes for breakfast, Japanese have them for lunch and dinner! It was so interesting getting to watch the chef make our pancakes. There’s so much focus and precision that goes into making this dish and you can tell because it’s delicious! We ordered the Eggs Benedict Pancakes.
After lunch we hit up Kappabashi Dori, otherwise known as “Kitchenware Street.” There are tons of little shops selling all sorts of restaurant supplies and pottery. Ryan was dying over how much more affordable quality kitchen appliances and supplies were over here. If only we could have them shipped to America! We did buy some hand made bowls for ramen though and I got my cat mug 🙂 There were so many beautiful pieces of pottery to choose from! I wish we could have gotten more, but that would have not made it back stateside so well.
We ended our day with a stroll through sakura studded Sumida Park and had dinner in Tokyo Skytree. Skyree is the tallest building in Tokyo! It was really cool to see, but I’d have to say Tokyo Tower was still more awe-inspiring to me.
For our halfway point in the trip we decided to take a break from the city and retreat an hour outside of metropolitan Tokyo to Mount Takao. This was probably one of our most favorite days of the trip. It was just so nice getting to breath in the fresh air from the mountain on a beautiful clear day!
We weren’t so far away from Tokyo that we couldn’t see it, in fact you get an amazing view of Tokyo from up there. It really puts in perspective just how big the city is. You could even see Skytree from all the way up there. Very neat!
One of the first things we did on the mountain was go to the little monkey park. This park has several macaque monkeys that live there and you can even get little treats to feed them! There was a little baby monkey who was so funny. He even ran up to the glass at one point to say hello! I managed to snap a picture of him before he darted away.
A big draw to coming to Takao for me was the little udon restaurant up there. At this spot you have the option of eating outside on their patio which overlooks a gorgeous mountainous view. As a bonus the udon was delicious and we got to try dango for the first time. Dango is kind of like a ricey texture mushed up in a ball with sticky, sweet sauce drizzled on it. Our waitress even gave us a free pin for coming to the restaurant which I thought was really nice 🙂
From there we began our hike to the top of the mountain. The entire main trail of the hike is paved, which is kind of nice and it also leads you through a series of shrines! There’s something about seeing a red torii gate in the mountains that makes you stop in your tracks in admiration. During our hike we stopped for some purple ice cream! The ice cream is made with berries that are indigenous to the mountain and it was the perfect refreshing treat for our hike!
However the top of the mountain held the greatest surprise of all: an epic view of Mount Fuji! We did not expect to be able to see Fuji from this mountain so we were blown away once we saw it at the top! We weren’t the only one captivated by its beauty. All kinds of people were trying to get photos of it. Unfortunately my 35mm lens wasn’t going to cut it when it came to getting a good photo of Fuji. Still so amazing to see!!
We decided to take a different trail back down the mountain. It was great getting to see the different kinds of trees a Japanese forest had to offer. We also came across a super cool suspension bridge! To get all the way down the mountain back to the train station we chose to ride on a chairlift. Again I didn’t get any photos of this moment because there wasn’t really a whole lot that would catch my camera if I were to accidentally drop it (just saying that makes me queasy). I will say thought it was definitely a highlight of the day on Takao. It was so peaceful getting to see Tokyo down below as we glided through the trees on the chairlift.
Once we made it back to where we were staying we foolishly decided to walk 20 minutes to find a donut shop that sold cute donuts. One thing Japan does not do as good as America: donuts. Anyways, we loved this day!
So there’s the first half of our trip!! I’m hoping to post the second half very soon! And if you read this entire blog post – wow you’re a true friend! The first week was super amazing, but I can’t wait to share with you about the second half of the trip as well!