The land of the Rising Sun, Shoguns, Samurai and Sakura.
Time to Visit – Look up the internet for the year’s correct information on Cherry Blossom, (sakura) blooming time. Mostly it is End March to Early April. The cherry blossoms bloom completely only for a span of 2 weeks. Post that they start closing up, and the green leaves start showing. It has to be seen full bloom, else the entire point is lost.
Autumn, is also a lovely time to visit Japan. The colors change, and the leaves are in full glory, from yellows, oranges and reds. I have not seen this sight, but was told by locals that it’s a sight to behold.
Do’s and Don’t’s.
Visit the shrines. You must. It’s a bit tedious, but the ones I would have left out, saying – seen one seen all, were the ones which will stay with me forever. Thankfully we had with us a friend who cajoled us and relentlessly took us to see everything there was to see. Be prepared to walk a lot.
Subway – The subway in Kyoto is fairly well connected. Its BRILLIANTLY connected in Tokyo. Take day passes. It works out super cheap and efficient. It is for 24 hours from the time you take it.
Taxi – Take as few times as possible. Prohibitively expensive. And they hate going to close by places.
Stay – in a RYOKAN in possible. At least for a night or so. We stayed in a very basic one. Try and find a little higher end one. It’s an experience you wont get anywhere else.
The people – are polite, amazing and extremely helpful. If you approach them for direction, they will drop what they are doing, drop the line they are standing in and take you to the place you were asking for. I have nothing but respect for the Japanese. We have never met a better race of people. They humble you with their polite behavior. You will find many of them wearing masks. Its not for their protection, but for the publics. They feel they have a cold or something infectious, and want to protect the public from it. Their motto in life is the neighbor should not suffer, at any cost. Absolutely amazing.
Weather – was cold in April, first week We got slight rainfall too. Look up the weather before you leave. It can get unpleasantly cold and take you by surprise.
Bullet Train– Shinkansen. We took it from Tokyo to Kyoto and back. An experience I tell you!! We were moving at the speed of 350 km/hr and felt not one lurch. Ever! Use the J R pass for the same.
Booking – can be done online. But you have to go and redeem it into a pass. It tales time so be prepared for the wait. Queues are long. Keep the pass carefully.
Its worth the money. We calculated daily tickets v/s the pass, and the pass was more worthwhile.
Train pass – The J R pass (Japan Railway) made a lot of sense because we traveled to Kyoto from Tokyo and back. From Kyoto we also went to Nara, using the same pass. We would have been able to use to to Mt. Fuji and Hiroshima too.
No eating in public transport! – Just not ok. Japan is so clean its unbelievable. And you wont see dustbins anywhere. Why? Firstly, people are not eating all over the streets. Secondly, they all carry a small trash bag with them. (YUP!) and take the trash home to throw.
Bus – Very effective. You have to pay when you get off. Keep change handy. They also have coin changing machines. In the bus!
Language – is an issue. Google translate is fantastic. You can also click a picture of the words you need translated and it converts those lines to English. Its fantastic and very helpful.
Guide – We booked for 3 days. Frankly you need them only for a day in Kyoto when you are doing the main shrines. Once you get the hang of the layout and language issues, you can maneuver yourself quite easily. We booked them through the Japanese Cultural Centre. _ Just for your info – they were just ok.
Tips – no one expects any tip what at all. Not the taxi driver, not your waiter in bars and restaurants, and not your bell boy. In fact they can take objection. I had taken small gift articles specific to India, and they were happy to accept those.
Drink – the local whisky. Its fantastic. Try the Sake. I did not like it much, but my friends loved it.
Shop – at local boutiques and stores. I picked up a lot of stuff from MUJI and UNIGLO.
Japan has lovely cotton clothes. Expensive, but some things were worth it.
Money Exchange – very funnily the best rate was available in the airport. Remarkably better. Both Tokyo and Kyoto city, had rates much worst than Tokyo airport.
Drinking water– tap water is safe in Japan. They have dispensers on every road, every corner, every mall.
Food – can be a bit of an issue. We had carried Theplas etc and were happy for it. Mostly we needed it in our train journey. Having said that we got great food all the way. You have to be a bit ready to experiment with Buddhist food etc. You can ask for chilli paste/ oil almost every restaurant. Also try the tofu dishes. You will not find better tofu anywhere else in the world. Jap food is healthy. I did not see even one plump person in Japan – forget obese.
HAVE THE LOCAL MEALS – see the restaurant section of this blog.
Buy local Japanese ingredients. I picked up Wasabi, Wasabi powder, Togarashi powder, some sort of ginger based powder and tofu skins.
Shiatsu Massage– It was soooo relaxing. It’s a kind of acupressure massage. They make you wear a robe and press points from head to toe. I felt like a zombie for a bit after the massage. The state of relaxation was really complete.
Voltage Issues – don’t buy electronics in Japan, unless you plan to use them in USA. They work on 110V.
Kiyomizu Dera . This is off Gion area – on a hillside. It was dark when we reached, but it was beautiful. I can only imagine it on a misty morning, with the clouds pouring in and the bells of the shrine tonging.
Gion – is a lovely area to walk around. Get the feel of the local area and the local life.
Nishiki Market. This is 100 years old. A sightseeing place as much as shop. Get the famous Japanese knives here. Buy some kimchi. Check out the different.
Philosophers Path. Dear lord! This place was heaven. The best Cherry Blossoms. The river flowing in between was filled with pink petals and the entire effect was amazing.
Ginkaku ji Shrine. The silver shrine. Thus named because the reflection of the moon would fall on the roof and make it look silver. Beautiful Zen gardens adorn the surroundings of this shrine.
Arashiyama – Bamboo forest. Must see. Walk between the bamboos to get a feel of how we humans are small little midgets compared to nature.
Nijo Castle. The Shogun’s retreat. The great hallways, the conference rooms, everything reeked of great history.
Inari . The shrine of the 10000 red gates. Beautiful red gates one after the other. Each gate was offered as a payback for a prayer answered. Quite a sight to see.
Kinkakuji Shrine. – Golden Pavillion. We did not see this one. But its on the top list of sight seeing in Kyoto.
An hour’s bullet train ride from Kyoto. NOT TO BE MISSED. My favourite shrine. The shrine with the hugeeeee Buddha. Todaiji Shrine. Mesmerizing.
Deer Park. Very interesting. Buy the cookies sold by the vendor and feed the deer. They come so close. And try feeding them some other food! They look at you like you have committed a sin! ;P
We found all restaurants in Japan, very small, very clean and run by minimal staff.
Sigestu – Tenryu ji Restaurant . Buddhist / Zen Meal. Absolutely amazing. Its called Shojin Riori – the meal.
Beer Komachi – Cute pub bar. Small.
Falafel Garden – good hot fresh Lebanese food.
Arash Kitchen – also Lebanese
Kerala – amazing indian meal. Don’t go anywhere else. Book in advance.
L escamoteur – PLEASE GO. It was the most amazing bar we went to. Go early as you will get turned away if there is no place. Fabulous host, fantastic cocktails. Vie for the swing seat, if only two of u.
Mad place – truly! No food!
138-9 Saisekidori, Shijosagaru, Saitocho
Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8012
Phone: +81 75-708-8511
On the same street as L escamoteur are many many restaurats. Great Italian places.
The Pontocoho Alley has many bars and restaurants. Dive into the small side streets. You will find hidden gems.
Some of the ones we visited were – Atlantis, K-ya, etc.
Hip – modern and completely city!
Senso ji Shrine Either we had a shrine over load or this really wasn’t that fantastic. Worth missing.
Meiji Shrine – Please GO! The walk to this serence shrine is well – serene. I loved the peace and quiet. Shuts at 6 pm!
Tofu Kai Zen Meal. Fantastic atomosphere and fantastic service. Book in advance.
La Jolla – Mexican. Was a good break and a good meal.
Gonpachi– very very famous. Kill Bill scenes were shot here. Fabulous food, though the din can get to u.
The dishes I want to highly recommend –
Takana Meshi – Rice pickled with mustard leaves, and served in a hot stone bowl.
Zaru Tofu – Special cold tofu in a bamboo basket.
Rigelleto – In the famous Roppongi area. Fantastic – yum yum!
Try their – mashed garlic potatoes and Jalapeno fritters
Sembikiya The fruit restaurant. MUST MUST MUST GO. Its located in the same buiding as the Mandarin Oriental hotel – the Nihombashi towers. 2 nd floor fruit parlour!
We went quite beserk! Have the fruit platter. The avocado and tomato sandwich and the fruit sandwich. TRUST ME ! Your mind will be blown away!
Umenohana Ginzanamiki Dori it’s a mouthful to pronounce, but the food is worth everything u have and you may have to give away! Book in advance. – book a veg meal in advance. Zen Meal.
Pinsa de Roma – small restaurant tucked away on way to Meiji Shrine, in the Takashite area. It’s a little off but plan to eat the pizzas there when you are on way to the shrine. You will not regret it! Best I have had. It was crisp, crunchy and sublime.
Peking Restaurant at the Imperial Hotel. Great chinese food.
Vivo bar – fantastic music. Ask for RICARDO very sweet chap.
Peter Bar – at The Peninsula Hotel. View of the city. Nice.
SHOPPING AND OTHER THINGs
Ometosando – shopping. High end stuff. In the middle of the street , there is a Japanese Craft centre. Good stuff for souvenirs. Do go. Its worth it. I picked up really soft towels from there.
Liquor Store – amazing one. Small but loaded.
Liquors Hasegawa – Shop no 1, Under Tokyo Main train Station. East Spot. Chuo Dori Avenue. Close to Daimaru.
Pick up your Japanese whiskies and Sake here.
Other shopping places – Daimaru, Sogo, Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya. Frankly I went crazy for the local stuff.
Local food – Basement of Takashimaya – there is a small super market called Medina (i forgot to write down the name – but it was something like that)
Akiabara – electronics market. You might not be able to pick up much because of the voltage issue, but do go and take a quick look. Its huge, massive. I haven’t seen an electronics market like this. Ever.