Day 1: December 24
On the morning of December 24, we arrived at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, Japan!! After figuring out the train and subway lines, we arrived at our AirBnB in Shibuya. We explored the area a bit while waiting for Jordan, Laura, and Fred to arrive. By mid-day we had all arrived and, although exhausted, we were eager to go out and see Tokyo. We decided to take the subway to Shinjuku station on a mission to find the famous “Piss Alley” (also known as “Shinjuku Omoide Yokochō”). After walking in the wrong direction for 15 minutes, we were finally able to find the hidden alley!
The alley is lined with tons of small, authentic restaurants that seat about six people. Although it was a bit crowded, we decided to have our first dinner at one of these restaurants. When we found a restaurant with all locals, we knew we were in a good place. After dinner, we went back to the AirBnB to relax and head to bed early since we were all running on very few hours of sleep.
Day 2: December 25
On December 25, we slept in and had breakfast at the AirBnB before getting picked up at 10:00am by our tour guide, Ari. Ari was born and raised in Tokyo and currently organizes privately guided tours of Tokyo for visitors like us. Our first stop with Ari was the Imperial Palace, the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan. While Japan has an elected legislature, the Emperor represents an important office similar to the Queen of England. The Imperial Palace was once a massive fortress, however today it contains a few small buildings for the family and a public park.
We then went to Tokyo Station to activate our JR Rail Passes and book our tickets for the bullet trains to/from Kyoto.
Ari then took us on the subway (which puts NYC subways to shame!) from Tokyo Station to Omotesando Hills. Omotesando Hills was built in 2005 and is a shopping complex in central Tokyo which reminded us of Fifth Avenue in NYC.
After walking along Omotesando Hills for about 15 minutes, we reached the Meiji Shrine. Ari taught us that most Japanese people are both Shinto and Buddhist and that this shrine is a Shinto Shrine. She taught us how to purify ourselves before approaching the shrine and the proper way to bow and clap when praying to the Shinto gods.
After a delicious ramen lunch with Ari, she brought us to the Harajuku neighborhood. Here we saw tons of colorful, interesting outfits as well as a “cat cafe.” Ari explained that people go to these cafes to have a cup of tea and play with cats…
We then went to the Shibuya neighborhood to see the “Shibuya Crossing,” rumored to be the busiest intersection in the world. It is said that over 1,000 people cross each time the light turns green. After witnessing it from a great viewpoint above, we believe it!!
In Shibuya, Ari took us to a very trendy cafe and then a famous department store called Loft. After exploring the interesting products in Loft, we thanked Ari for a wonderful day. After saying goodbye to Ari, we found a bar nearby and had some tea and beers before heading to dinner at Kaikaya. This restaurant came highly recommended from a handful of friends and lived up to our expectations. The family run seafood restaurant sources its fish from their own boats and the restaurant offers a cozy, casual experience.
Day 3: December 26
On December 26 we took the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Along the 2:45hr trip, we passed Mount Fuji. After checking into our AirBnB in Kyoto, we walked to the famous Nishiki Market. This food market is filled with tons of fish, green tea deserts, and Japanese bean pastes. We tried lots of food as we strolled through the market, some of which we liked and some of which we really didn’t like.
We then walked to Nanzen-ji Temple, known to be one of the finest temples in Kyoto. It is surrounded by a big park that consists of many sub-temples.
After exploring the temple we went to an amazing sushi dinner at a small, family owned restaurant called Kikyo.
Day 4: December 27
We started December 27 with a delicious breakfast at Smart Coffee before heading to our two hour walking tour. Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and showed us all around the Ginza district and taught us a lot of Geisha culture.
After our walking tour, we had a quick lunch and then went to Chion-in, a grand temple dating back to 1234. One of the most famous Japanese Buddhists taught at this temple before starving himself to death.
After walking through the temple, we then went up the hill to see the monks ring the 2:00pm bell.
We spent the rest of the day walking along Nene-no-Michi, one of Kyoto’s most scenic streets. Along this street we passed more Shinto shrines and many touristy shops.
After walking down some more scenic streets (Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka), we reached Kiyomizu-dera Temple. This temple has a hall with a huge veranda and stunning views of the hillside and Kyoto city. The area around the temple consists of many pagodas, one of which is the “child bearing pagoda.” At the base of the temple is a waterfall where you can drink sacred water for good health.
After lots of walking, we went to Ki Bar to relax before our dinner reservation at Tempura Yoshikawa. This dinner was a very special, traditional nine course dinner. We were seated in a private room overlooking a beautiful zen garden. Our two waitresses were dressed as geishas and explained each course to us in great detail.
What a perfect dinner to start off Cody’s 27th birthday!! 🎉
Day 5: December 28
On December 28 we started our morning at a delicious cafe called Sentido. We then met our group for the day to explore Kyoto and Nara. The first stop was Ryoanji Temple, home to one of Japan’s most famous rock gardens.
The second stop was Kinkau-ji, which includes the famous Golden Pavillion.
The third stop was Kitano Tenman-gū Shrine, a Shrine dedicated to education. Many students in Kyoto come to this Shrine before big exams to pray to the gods.
After a quick lunch with our group, we boarded the bus to go to Nara! Our first stop in Nara was Todaiji, a religious complex known for housing one of the world’s largest Buddha statues.
After being blown away by the size of the Buddha, we then went next door to the deer park to feed the deer. The deer bow three times (yes, they are actually very obedient and legitimately bow!!) and then humans feed them “deer snacks” (which are sold throughout the park).
Once we all got a significant amount of deer bites, it was time to head to Kasuga Shrine. This Shrine is known for its 3,000+ lanterns that line its interior.
When we arrived back in Kyoto from Nara, we grabbed a beer at a nearby bar called Craft Beer Pub. We then went to dinner at Hafuu, a Kaiseki restaurant which is a traditional multi-course cuisine in Japan. We all had wagyu beef and it was by far the best we have ever had!
Day 6: December 29
On December 29 we slept in for a bit before grabbing breakfast at a coffee shop near Nijo Station. After breakfast, we took the subway west to Tenryū-ji Temple, which was initially built in 1339. The temple was built on the former site of an Emperor’s villa because a priest has dreamt that a dragon was rising from the nearby river, therefore meaning that the Emperor’s soul was at unease. As a result, the temple was built to ease the Emperor’s soul and it was named “Heavenly Dragon.” The temple building that stands today was built in 1900 and is surrounded by a 14th century Zen garden.
After walking through the Zen garden, we reached the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. This bamboo forest is a “must see” in Kyoto. Walking between the bamboo stalks is atmospheric and somewhat magical!
At the end of the Bamboo Grove, we arrived at the entrance of the Okochi Sanso Villa, which is the home of the famous samurai actor Okochi Denjiro. We spent some time walking through the gardens surrounding the Villa since they were absolutely beautiful.
We then went across Togetsu-kyo Bridge to reach the Arashiyama Monkey Park. Once we arrived at the entrance, we hiked about 20 minutes uphill to see the monkeys. Over 200 Japanese monkeys live in the park. This park is extra special because while the monkeys run around free, all of the human visitors are in cages!
After feeding the monkeys, we hiked back downhill to find a place for lunch. We ended up having delicious soba in town at Togakushi. After lunch we took the subway east to Keage Station to go to The Philsopher’s Walk, a pedestrian path that follows a canal and is lined with cherry blossom trees. We started at the southern point of the path (Nanzen-ji Temple, which we already visited on our first day in Kyoto) and walked North. We stopped along the way at a beautiful temple named Zenrinji.
After exploring The Philsopher’s Walk, we took a cab back to our AirBnB to relax before having an early dinner.
Day 7: December 30
We spent our last day in Kyoto exploring Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shrine that sits at the base of a mountain. We got to the Shrine early and hiked for about two hours through thousands of orange gates.
For those interested in visiting this shrine, we highly recommend going early. On our way back down the mountain, the trail was packed with tourists!!
After visiting the shrine, we had ramen in Kyoto Station’s “Ramen Alley” before boarding the bullet train back to Tokyo. For dinner in Tokyo we went to a Shabu-Shabu restaurant. Shabu-Shabu is a Japanese hotpot dish of thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled in water.
Day 8: December 31
Most of Tokyo shuts down for New Years, but we were still able to find some fun activities. We spent the morning at Tokyo Tower to see beautiful views of the city from above.
We then went to Akihabara Electric Town, Tokyo’s “Times Square.” After being blown away by all of the crazy lights and electronics, we decided to do as the Japanese do and go to a cat cafe! 🐱
We then had a late lunch and relaxed at the hotel before heading to our New Year’s Eve cruise on Tokyo Bay.
The cruise was great! There was a live marching band, open bar, and fireworks!
Day 9: January 1
After a late night, we all decided to sleep in. After grabbing a late breakfast/early lunch in Tokyo Station, we took the train to Odaiba. In Odaiba we walking along the water and explored the nearby mall.
We took the train back just as the sun started to set and the views were beautiful!
We had dinner at a bbq place in the Ginza District. We barbecued many of the meats ourselves, including tongue! 😬
Day 10: January 2
For our last, full day in Japan we decided to explore Ueno Park. In the morning while it was still a bit chilly, we went to the “Van Gogh in Japan” exhibit at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. It was interesting to learn that while Van Gogh was very influenced by the Japanese, he never actually ever visited Japan!
After the museum we went to the Ueno Zoo to see some pandas 🐼.
For lunch we went to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening strolling around the Imperial Palace (where the emperor appeared earlier in the morning). We reached the Andaz by 5:00pm for our last evening drinks and dinner!
Day 11: January 3
We all went our separate ways on January 3. Jordan, Laura, and Fred went to the airport early to head back to NYC. We relaxed for the day and strolled around Ginza before heading to airport for our flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. All in all, Japan an amazing, memorable vacation!! 🇯🇵❤️