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Japan & Hawai'i Honeymoon -- May/June 2019

Sarah and I thoroughly enjoyed our wedding in May 2018 and exactly a year later we finally got around to going on our official honeymoon. We spent ten food-filled days in Japan and then six more days relaxing on the Big Island in Hawaii. It was completely wonderful!

Tokyo, Japan

Time to honeymoon!

We decided to start out easy and fly mid-day on a Friday instead of trying to rush out after working all day. We also used all of our United miles to book business class tickets for the long flights to ensure maximum comfort on this most amazing trip. For yesterday's direct flight to Tokyo we were fortunate to be able to fly on one of United's new Polaris-equipped planes with side-by-side lie-flat seats. But before getting on the plane we were able to enjoy the fancy new Polaris lounge at SFO. It was huge and comfortable and a great place to eat breakfast before the long flight. We found a nice corner to relax quietly watching planes take off and land.

On the plane we spent a bunch of time playing with all the features of our seats and exploring all the storage, entertainment, and toiletry kits. We even got slippers and fancy blankets! Shortly after take-off we were served a full hot lunch with appetizers, wine, and dessert. We enjoyed this meal while watching "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" on our large TVs with fancy headphones. After lunch we tried to sleep a bit, Sarah succeeding more than I. I gave up after a couple hours, not able to sleep on planes very well even with lie-flat seats. I read a bit and then watch "Venom" until it was time for breakfast. Then we landed at Narita outside Tokyo!

After collecting our bags and a long wait at border control we boarded the N'EX (Narita Express) train for downtown Tokyo. Narita airport is nowhere near Tokyo so even an express train takes about an hour to get to the city centre. Although we were a bit bleary from the flight and the time-zone change it was still fun to take the train and see a bit of country-side (rice-paddies, temples) and then watch the metropolis of Tokyo rise up all around us.

Tokyo Station (one of the largest in the city) was predictably busy (understatement) but we were able to transfer to the Yamanote metro line easily and ride one stop to our hotel. We're staying at The Gate Hotel Tokyo in Ginza, a very popular and central district with tons of things to see and do and easy access to transit to get to many other neighbourhoods. Our room is lovely and we were very grateful to arrive and be able to take a bit of a rest this afternoon.

Post-rest, we wandered out to walk around and find dinner. We are prepared with a huge list of restaurants we want to try and styles of food we want to eat (much more than the number of meals available to us in the time we have). Tonight we chose to get okonomiyaki at Okonomiyaki Kiji which is a small chain founded in Osaka, the home of okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a thick, grilled, savory pancake that can be filled with many different ingredients and which is held together by a yam and wheat flour batter. Generally you sit at a table with a grill on it where you keep your food warm and can control how cooked (i.e. crispy) you want it. This place is insanely popular so we waited in line for about thirty minutes to get a table. Once inside we ordered beers and two different okonomiyaki to share: one with kimchi and bacon; the other with cheese and tomatoes. Both were super delicious and extraordinarily filling.

We waddled out of the restaurant and decided to walk the long way back to the hotel to try to get our bearings a bit and just see the neighbourhood. We peeked in shops on various side-streets, wandered around the outside of Tokyo Station, and got a special matcha cheese tart from BAKE to have as a small dessert. Then we headed back to the hotel around 9pm and went to bed.

View from the Polaris Lounge
View from the Polaris Lounge
Our little sitting area and breakfast in the Polaris Lounge
Our little sitting area and breakfast in the Polaris Lounge
In the Polaris Lounge
In the Polaris Lounge
In our fancy Polaris seats
In our fancy Polaris seats
Checking out the lie-flat seat
Checking out the lie-flat seat
There is a divider between the seats in case your neighbour is weird
There is a divider between the seats in case your neighbour is weird
Lots of fancy toiletries to make the flight comfortable
Lots of fancy toiletries to make the flight comfortable
Wine and nuts
Wine and nuts
Appetizers
Appetizers
My dinner (roast beef)
My dinner (roast beef)
Sarah's dinner (thai curry)
Sarah's dinner (thai curry)
Dessert (ice cream sundae and cheese plate)
Dessert (ice cream sundae and cheese plate)
Breakfast
Breakfast
Our hotel
Our hotel
Random Godzilla statue (as you do)
Random Godzilla statue (as you do)
Random Godzilla statue (as you do)
Random Godzilla statue (as you do)
Dinnerware at Okonomiyaki Kiji
Dinnerware at Okonomiyaki Kiji
Okonomiyaki!
Okonomiyaki!
Matcha Egg Tart
Matcha Egg Tart
Tokyo, Japan

Our first full day in Tokyo was busy and awesome! And full of jet-lag battles! This morning we woke up super early and nothing was really open yet (it's a Sunday) so we had (spendy) breakfast at the hotel. It was good, but nothing special, except for the insanely bright orange yolk in the egg on my Eggs Benedict.

Our first stop this morning was to visit the large Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple, Tokyo's oldest temple (rebuilt after WWII, but originally founded in 645AD). We were able to get there ahead of the crowds and the worst of the heat of the day so it was quite a pleasant visit.

Next was the highlight of the day, a "print party" with David Bull himself at Mokuhankan. I've been following David since 2012 when he and Jed Henry combined forces to create legitimate woodblock prints of popular video game characters in the traditional "Ukiyo-e" style. I've always loved Hokusai's "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" and was very excited to support the pair in their work to bring the style to contemporary Western audiences. I purchased three prints from their "Ukiyo-e Heroes" series over the years. Later I helped fund David's independent Kickstarter to open a permanent shop in Tokyo. As part of that project he painstakingly recreated Hokusai's most famous work, studying the remaining "original" prints at various museums and carefully re-carving all the blocks required to make the print. For my support, I received a print of David's recreation of the Great Wave and a chance to join a "print party" at his shop in Tokyo. Finally getting to Tokyo in 2019, Sarah and I were excited to meet him and learn more about his work!

At the print party, David takes you through the process of producing a woodblock print from pre-carved blocks. He explains the history of the art form and all the steps it takes to create the final product. You get to try it out and go home with a small print that you make yourself. Sarah and I were joined in our party by a couple of women from the Bay Area who did not seem as excited as us, but we had a great time anyway. David and one of his employees were great to talk to and excellent teachers. After the party we browsed the shop and bought a couple professional prints to take home with us to enjoy.

David was very talkative during the party and he told us all about his shop and how he trains apprentices to try to help keep the art form alive. He's also very adamant that he himself is not an artist. He merely carves blocks and makes prints -- the true artists are the ones who come up with the designs. He considers himself more of a skilled technician or tradesperson. Perhaps artisan is a better word? We also chatted a bunch with him about his personal history. He was born in the UK and moved to the Downsview neighbourhood in Toronto (when it was an army base) with his family when he was five. In his twenties he became interested in woodblock printing, taught himself the basics, and then moved to Japan in his thirties to pursue a career in the field. He's lived there ever since where he works extremely hard to help preserve the art form. It's an amazing story and he's so quietly passionate about everything he does so it was amazing to hear him talk.

After we left Mokuhankan we wandered around Asukusa a bit more and looked in some fun shops. Our favourite was a store that creates extremely realistic looking fake food for restaurants to display in their windows to show what they serve. It was super cool (but no photos allowed!). We also visited the big Mitsukoshi Department Store in Ginza to see their wonderful two-story food hall. Japanese department stores all seem to have the most amazing food halls and this one did not disappoint. There must have been hundreds of separate vendors selling every type of food imaginable. It was too much to possibly take in all at once. We picked up some tempura chicken, a weird battered egg, some buns, and some matcha warabi mochi to take back to our hotel for lunch. It was all delicious!

After a short rest we jumped on a train to Arakawa to get more food from Gekko Mochi, a tiny cafe-like spot tucked down an alley in the middle of nowhere. They specialize in kinako mochi (mochi coated in roasted soybean flour) and it was a delight. We had some excellent matcha tea and enjoyed a black sesame mochi and two roasted mochi in red bean soup. So good! We didn't really need the extra food though so we decided to walk from there to our next stop, the Tokyo National Museum.

The museum is huge, so we focused on the various Japanese sections, especially the old swords and armour and various old scrolls and examples of early calligraphy. No photos allowed, but it was a truly excellent museum where you could easily spend several days.

After the museum we took the train back to the food hall to grab a small container of fruit for dinner. We were still stuffed and our stomachs were not quite adjusted to the new time zone yet. We also stopped by a fancy KitKat store to pick up souvenirs for people back home who had specifically requested weird KitKats (a big thing in Japan). After dinner we went to Tokyo Station to figure out our Shinkansen (bullet train) tickets for our journey to Kyoto the day after tomorrow. The station itself is super fun to explore with literally hundreds of shops and restaurants. We spent a bunch of time in a Studio Ghibli store looking at all the fun stuff from their movies.

Next we got on the metro to visit the Tokyo Whisky Library (modeled after the Multnomah Whiskey Library, but with a bigger focus on Japanese whiskys). Being a Sunday night it wasn't very busy so we were able to get seats at the bar without waiting. The selection was nice and we enjoyed our drams thoroughly (Nikka Pure Malt 21 for me and Nikka Single Malt Miyagikyo Fruit & Rich for Sarah).

After drinks we took in Shibuya Crossing, the busiest scramble crossing intersection in the world. Even late on a Sunday evening it was pretty crowded. Crossing once was enough excitement for us; we quickly headed back to the hotel after that to get some much-needed sleep.

Breakfast at the hotel
Breakfast at the hotel
Hilarious sign at the metro exit
Hilarious sign at the metro exit
Entrance to the Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Entrance to the Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Random side-street
Random side-street
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
A corgi at Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
A corgi at Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Koi fish at Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Koi fish at Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Koi fish at Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Koi fish at Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Pregnant koi fish at Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Pregnant koi fish at Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Random lemon snack
Random lemon snack
Sarah doing one of the first steps of her print
Sarah doing one of the first steps of her print
Sarah doing one of the first steps of her print, directed by David Bull
Sarah doing one of the first steps of her print, directed by David Bull
Sarah doing one of the first steps of her print, directed by David Bull
Me doing one of the last steps of my print, directed by David Bull
Me doing one of the last steps of my print, directed by David Bull
Me doing one of the last steps of my print
Me doing one of the last steps of my print
All of us with our prints
All of us with our prints
Funny sign at a metro station
Funny sign at a metro station
Red bean soup mochi at Gekko Mochi
Red bean soup mochi at Gekko Mochi
Black sesame mochi at Gekko Mochi
Black sesame mochi at Gekko Mochi
Actual size whale sculpture near Tokyo National Museum
Actual size whale sculpture near Tokyo National Museum
Dinner of champions
Dinner of champions
Epic china sets at the Studio Ghibli store
Epic china sets at the Studio Ghibli store
Tokyo Whisky Library
Tokyo Whisky Library
Our whiskys
Our whiskys
Tokyo Whisky Library
Tokyo Whisky Library
Shibuya Crossing
Shibuya Crossing
Timelapse of Shibuya Crossing
Tokyo, Japan

Today is our one year wedding anniversary and we definitely made the most of it! After exchanging cards first thing in the morning we headed out to Turret Coffee for some excellent americano and a peanut cream dorayaki (red bean pancake). Then we walked to the Tsukiji Outer Market to find more wonderful food. In the past the Tsukiji Outer Market was associated with the famous Tsukiji Fish Market where restaurants would come to buy the best fish in the world. The fish market moved to another part of the city, but the Outer Market remained behind and is still an awesome spot to visit on its own.

We spent a good amount of time just looking at all the fun food available before deciding on what to buy. We ended up buying a mixed pack of different flavours of Tamagoyaki (Japanese omelettes), a really good croissant, a couple onigiri (rice balls stuffed with various fillings), some ultra fresh chutoro and otoro (different cuts of tuna belly), some strawberry mochi, and a white strawberry skewer. We also added some melon pan (a sweet bun) from a bakery near our hotel. Some of the food we ate while walking around, and some we took with us back to the hotel to eat there before heading out on our next adventure. It was all delicious, but the onigiri was a real highlight. Super simple and very inexpensive, but insanely delicious. Mine had a soft-boiled egg inside that was just magical.

After gorging we got on a train to Shibuya to check out some of the shops there. We spent a good amount of time in Tokyu Hands which is an enormous discount department store (seven stories tall) containing every imaginable product ever. It was super fun.

Next we picked up an iced coffee from a vending machine and drank that with our delicious melon pan while walking to Meiji Jingū, a large Shinto shrine in the middle of a forest. It was a lovely little break from the busy city. We saw great koi, turtles, butterflies, flowers, and the shrine itself was fantastic with gorgeous large trees.

After the shrine we headed to the Isetan Department store in Shinjuku to compare their food hall to the Mitsukoshi food hall near our hotel. We preferred the Mitsukoshi one, but the Isetan food hall was spectacular too. In the same neighbourhood we also tried dango, a sweet similar to mochi often served with sweet soy sauce. It was sticky and messy and very unusual in flavour. Sarah wasn't a huge fan but I thought it was ok. After our snack we checked out a huge book store filled with Japanese and Western books. It was pretty great!

The main event of the day was dinner. We put on our fancy clothes and then headed to Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara where we had made dinner reservations for our anniversary. The restaurant serves yakiniku, which is various types of beef grilled over wood coals. This particular restaurant serves multi-course meals focusing on many different cuts of waygu beef. We arrived and were seated right away by extremely friendly and helpful staff. We ordered a Côtes du Rhône red wine to go with dinner and then got ready to eat.

Each table at the restaurant has a grill in the centre, and the staff grill your meat to perfection right in front of you. They were always very exact and careful with their work and the results were fantastic. Our courses were as follows (all beef from waygu cattle):

  • Potato cream and beef broth jelly
  • Beef tartare made with thinly sliced sirloin instead of ground beef
  • Three separate cuts of beef tongue (definitely a top highlight of the meal)
  • Very well marbled thinly sliced steak (not sure the cut)
  • Skirt steak
  • Very well marbled thinly sliced steak (not sure the cut)
  • Salad
  • Potato soup
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Very well marbled thinly sliced steak (not sure the cut)
  • Tripe and large intestine with radish and pepper
  • Sliced beef on rice with kimchi and cucumber
  • Noodles (we skipped this because we were bursting from food)
  • Tortilla tea (yes really, and it was delicious)
  • Pistachio ice cream

Everything was amazing and the instruction and information shared by the staff was great too. And we were so impossibly full when we left. Everyone said goodbye to us as we exited down the elevator and we quickly returned to the hotel to collapse and sleep.

Coffee and dorayaki
Coffee and dorayaki
Tsukiji Outer Market
Tsukiji Outer Market
Tamagoyaki
Tamagoyaki
Croissant
Croissant
Tiny octopus skewers
Tiny octopus skewers
Huge knives at the knife store
Huge knives at the knife store
Fish heads...
Fish heads...
Chutoro and Otoro tuna
Chutoro and Otoro tuna
Strawberry Mochi
Strawberry Mochi
Strawberry Mochi
Strawberry Mochi
White strawberries
White strawberries
Onigiri
Onigiri
Onigiri
Onigiri
Shibuya
Shibuya
Vending machine coffee
Vending machine coffee
Torii at entrance to Meiji Jingū shrine
Torii at entrance to Meiji Jingū shrine
Torii at entrance to Meiji Jingū shrine
Torii at entrance to Meiji Jingū shrine
Donated sake barrels at Meiji Jingū shrine
Donated sake barrels at Meiji Jingū shrine
Donated sake barrels at Meiji Jingū shrine
Donated sake barrels at Meiji Jingū shrine
Pond at Meiji Jingū shrine
Pond at Meiji Jingū shrine
Pond at Meiji Jingū shrine
Pond at Meiji Jingū shrine
Turtle at Meiji Jingū shrine
Turtle at Meiji Jingū shrine
Iris fields at Meiji Jingū shrine
Iris fields at Meiji Jingū shrine
Iris fields at Meiji Jingū shrine
Iris fields at Meiji Jingū shrine
Entrance to Meiji Jingū shrine
Entrance to Meiji Jingū shrine
Meiji Jingū shrine
Meiji Jingū shrine
Meiji Jingū shrine
Meiji Jingū shrine
Meiji Jingū shrine
Meiji Jingū shrine
Meiji Jingū shrine
Meiji Jingū shrine
Meiji Jingū shrine
Meiji Jingū shrine
Meiji Jingū shrine
Meiji Jingū shrine
Torii at exit from Meiji Jingū shrine
Torii at exit from Meiji Jingū shrine
Dango
Dango
At dinner
At dinner
At dinner
At dinner
Wine!
Wine!
Potato cream and beef broth jelly
Potato cream and beef broth jelly
Our grill
Our grill
Beef tartare made with thinly sliced sirloin instead of ground beef
Beef tartare made with thinly sliced sirloin instead of ground beef
Legendary Waygu Beef Tongue
Legendary Waygu Beef Tongue
Legendary Waygu Beef Tongue
Legendary Waygu Beef Tongue
Salad
Salad
Very well marbled thinly sliced steak (not sure the cut)
Very well marbled thinly sliced steak (not sure the cut)
Beef!
Beef!
Beef!
Beef!
Potato soup
Potato soup
Very well marbled thinly sliced steak (not sure the cut)
Very well marbled thinly sliced steak (not sure the cut)
Beef!
Beef!
Pickled veggies
Pickled veggies
Tripe and large intestine
Tripe and large intestine
Pistachio ice cream
Pistachio ice cream
Hakone, Japan

We slept well last night and now feel that we are reasonably adjusted to the new time zone. We got up in good time this morning and ate a simple breakfast in our room of yogurt, fruit, and granola all purchased at the department store food hall yesterday. Then we fought our way through commuter crowds with all our luggage to the train station.

Today we rode our first Shinkansen (bullet train) to get to Hakone, a small town just outside of Tokyo near Mount Fuji. Japan's bullet train network is the best in the world, having carried over ten billion passengers since inception running at speeds up to 320 km/h. We only got a small taste today, but it was already super fun. We rode on a non-express train along the Tōkaidō line which runs 365 trains per day between Tokyo and Osaka, a distance of 515km. Each train has 16 cars and can hold up to 1323 seated passengers (but you can also stand, so total capacity is higher). It's one of the busiest high speed train lines in the world, with a frequency of service that surpasses many municipal subway systems. It's really hard to describe, but we had a fantastic time riding. One fun thing we got to see today was the train being serviced. We boarded at Tokyo station, the first/last stop on the line. Our train rolled into the station and perfectly uniformed service staff gathered at each door. They entered the train all at the same time, blocked the doors to prevent passengers from entering, then in a quick, coordinated fashion moved through the train cleaning each row and flipping the seats to face the other way (the train can run forward or backward, so rather than turning around they just turn the seats when it's time to go the other direction). The service took less than three minutes to finish and then we boarded and pulled out of the station.

After our very short trip to Hakone we got off and stored our luggage in a luggage locker at the station. Hakone is a lovely little town on a river in the woods about 30km from Mount Fuji, the tallest peak in Japan at 12,388'. It's a popular destination for both Japanese and foreign tourists as it has great scenery, easy access to Fuji, and the geothermal activity gives Hakone tons of natural hot springs. Our plan for today was to do the "Hakone Round Course" which uses a variety of transit methods to see a large amount of the region in a short time. You take a historic railway through forested hills, then a cable car up a steep short slope, then a gondola over active sulphur hot springs, then a pirate ship across Lake Ashi, followed by a short hike along a historic trail, finishing with a bus ride back to the starting point. Unfortunately today the ropeway was closed due to "volcanism" and the boat wasn't running because of bad weather (a storm was coming making the lake quite rough). The weather also meant we couldn't see Mount Fuji from any of the view points, but we weren't counting on that as it is frequently obscured by cloud cover.

Instead we took a bus down to the lake and had lunch at a lovely soba restaurant where we each got plates of delicious soba noodles with assorted tempura and some beer. Then we did an extended version of the hike along the historic trail, which includes a section lined with huge old cedar trees and a section of the Old Tōkaidō Road. The road is a cobble stone path constructed in the 17th century to connect Kyoto and Tokyo (called Edo at the time). The portion we walked still had original cobble stones and led through a lovely section of forest to a tea house in the woods. At the tea house we had some iced matcha and then caught a bus to the end of the Hakone Tozan Railway.

The Hakone Tozan Railway is Japan's oldest mountain railway, running short trains through dense forest over bridges and tunnels, using switchbacks to make significant elevation changes. The views were excellent and the train was a lot of fun to ride.

Back in town we retrieved our luggage and then walked five minutes to our accommodations for tonight. We're staying at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn featuring tatami mat floors. Our ryokan, Gyokutei, has only four guest suites each made up of several rooms separated by sliding paper walls. Each suite looks on to the center courtyard which has a large pond full of koi surrounded by amazing trees and other plants. When we arrived we were greeted by five staff members including three women dressed in very fancy traditional kimonos. We checked in and one of the women, Akimi, showed us around the ryokan and took us to our suite. She sat us down in the dining area of our room and brought us freshly made matcha and a rice/red bean treat to enjoy while she described the way things would go during our stay. A ryokan stay generally includes a large multi-course dinner served in your room as well as a traditional breakfast and time to use the public baths. There are also etiquette rules to know that are very important to avoid offending other guests.

Once Akimi was done with our introduction to how a ryokan works we changed into our Yukata, light kimonos that you generally wear while inside a ryokan. Then we took advantage of the highlight of our ryokan, the natural hot spring fed baths. Our suite had a private tub that we could fill with hot mineral water straight from the spring and there were also the more traditional communal baths shared with all the guests. Sarah chose to use our private bath while I went to experience the communal bathing facilities. Gyokutei has two baths, each with a different view and they cycle which is for men and which for women. There is a large amount of etiquette around using a communal bath, but the most important thing is to thoroughly wash your entire body before entering the bath itself. I did my best to look like I knew what I was doing and then enjoyed sitting in the hot mineral water while looking out at the mountains outside the window. It was amazing.

Back in our room, Sarah and I sat on our balcony for a while chatting and then walked around the courtyard to look at the koi fish. Then it was time for dinner! Gyokutei serves a Kaiseki dinner: a traditional multi-course Japanese meal. A large number of small, simple, well prepared dishes are served slowly over an evening presented on fancy plates and dishware. Akimi brought in each course and described them to us before leaving us to enjoy. Half way through the meal the owner of the ryokan came by and knelt bowing at the door to our dining room to thank us for staying with them. It was a really great meal. We didn't take photos though as it seemed a bit inappropriate. From memory, our meal included:

  • Saltwater eel called anago (currently in season) with radish and fluffy tofu in an eggy bonito broth
  • Tuna, scallop, and amberjack sashimi
  • Small cubes of steak with miso sauce and sweet picked tomato on lettuce
  • Fried shrimp dumpling with pepper and dashi
  • Crab and eggplant soup
  • Miso soup with rice mixed with anchovies, pickled onion and cucumber
  • Some fruit, never determined what type, kind of like persimmon though
  • Peanut ice cream on red bean with matcha sauce
  • Lots of tea throughout the meal
  • A complimentary bottle of sake in honour of our anniversary

The meal was substantial and delicious, although not everything was always identifiable. Akimi did a great job explaining things, but her English only went so far when talking about more obscure ingredients even when aided by Google Translate on her phone. While we ate, and without disturbing us, someone made up the futons in our room (rollable mattresses laid out on the tatami floor). Once we finished, Akimi cleaned up dinner and bid us goodnight. We had another nice soak in our private hot spring tub and then went to bed. Staying at the ryokan was a very relaxing way to end a busy day.

Breakfast
Breakfast
On the Shinkansen
On the Shinkansen
On the Shinkansen
On the Shinkansen
River in Hakone
River in Hakone
Beer at lunch
Beer at lunch
Soba and tempura
Soba and tempura
Soba and duck soup
Soba and duck soup
Parked pirate ship and torii gates on Lake Ashi
Parked pirate ship and torii gates on Lake Ashi
Rough waters on the lake
Flowers on the Avenue of Cedars
Flowers on the Avenue of Cedars
Avenue of Cedars
Avenue of Cedars
Avenue of Cedars
Avenue of Cedars
Avenue of Cedars
Avenue of Cedars
Cool moss
Cool moss
Approaching the old road
Approaching the old road
The Old Tōkaidō Road
The Old Tōkaidō Road
The Old Tōkaidō Road
The Old Tōkaidō Road
The Old Tōkaidō Road
The Old Tōkaidō Road
The Old Tōkaidō Road
The Old Tōkaidō Road
Above the Old Tōkaidō Road
Above the Old Tōkaidō Road
On the Old Tōkaidō Road
On the Old Tōkaidō Road
Weird sign we saw near the tea house
Weird sign we saw near the tea house
Trail near the tea house
Trail near the tea house
The tea house
The tea house
The Hakone Tozan Railway
The Hakone Tozan Railway
Riding the Hakone Tozan Railway
Walking through Hakone
Walking through Hakone
Walking through Hakone
Walking through Hakone
Walking through Hakone
Walking through Hakone
Welcome treat at our ryokan
Welcome treat at our ryokan
Matcha
Matcha
Video tour of our ryokan suite at Gyokutei
Our private onsen
Our private onsen
Our dining room
Our dining room
Sitting room overlooking the gardens
Sitting room overlooking the gardens
View of the gardens
View of the gardens
Me in my yukata
Me in my yukata
Courtyard at the ryokan
Courtyard at the ryokan
Koi
Koi
Our bedroom
Our bedroom
Our bedroom after dinner
Our bedroom after dinner
Kyoto, Japan

This morning we woke up refreshed after a great sleep in our cozy futons. It rained overnight which sounded great from our room too. We got up and showered and went out to sit on our deck by the pond. Akimi brought us tea and dried plum to enjoy with the view while she prepared our breakfast.

Ryokans generally serve a traditional Japanese breakfast which is a large meal featuring multiple dishes. In contrast to dinner it is served all at once instead of one dish at a time. After bringing it all out and seeing our shocked faces at the quantity Akimi explained that although it is a big meal it is "all healthy" and an excellent way to start the day. The food was good, but ultimately overwhelmed us and we did not finish it all. Breakfast included:

  • Seaweed salad
  • Tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette)
  • Rice pudding
  • Fish cakes with wasabi
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Tofu skin
  • A whole grilled fish each
  • Silken tofu in broth
  • Miso soup
  • Rice
  • Yogurt with blueberry jam
  • Tea

After breakfast we went back out to sit on our deck while Akimi cleaned up. She served us coffee there and we savored that with our last hour at this lovely ryokan.

When we checked out the owner met us with three other staff all to say good bye and to thank us for staying with them. They gave us a couple small parting gifts (a small patterned hand towel and some origami figures) and then walked us to the gate, bowing regularly. They were so nice and we had such a good time staying there. We'll definitely come back if we are lucky enough to return to Japan.

Today we caught an express Shinkansen from Odawara to Kyoto, a trip of about two hours on the high speed train. We grabbed some snacks at the train station for the trip, including an onigiri with a breaded pork cutlet inside. So good! We were able to catch a few glimpses of Mount Fuji from the train, but it mostly stayed in the clouds. When we reached Kyoto we made our way through the busy train station to the subway, stopping to buy a matcha red-bean bun from Sizuyapan (a really great Kyoto bakery). After a quick subway ride and short walk we arrived at our hotel located near the Nishiki Market.

We enjoyed our bun and relaxed a bit in our room before heading out to start exploring Kyoto. Our first stop in the city was the famous Nishiki Market, a large collection of shops selling all sorts of food and non-food items, many of which are unique to Kyoto. We spent a ton of time just looking at all the fun stuff, eventually succumbing to the smell of freshly fried soy-milk donuts. After exploring the market we just wandered about the city some, stumbling across a shrine and a super fancy donut shop where we bought more donuts to eat later. Then we headed to SouSou, a collection of awesome shops that sell clothes and other fabric products in traditional Japanese style (the famous Ise Cotton) but decorated with contemporary designs. We thoroughly explored all the SouSou shops and bought a few gifts for people back home.

For dinner we got in line to eat at Ippudo Ramen, a famous ramen shop that even has locations outside of Japan. I had their signature tonkatsu ramen while Sarah had the spicy szechuan ramen, and we shared some gyoza and beer. It was so so good. After eating we checked out another department store food hall and picked up a few snacks for tomorrow. Then we went back to the hotel to eat our donuts and rest a bit before heading out to explore Kyoto at night.

Our first stop was a random craft beer bar that served a pretty decent selection of local beers. Then we walked along Pontocho Alley, a tight street packed with restaurants and bars that only comes alive in the evening. From there we crossed the river into the Gion District where we saw Geishas walking with clients and tons of cool old buildings. We also saw a handful of fireflies over the river making everything even more magical.

While waiting for a bus to get back to the hotel an old Japanese man chatted us up to check if he had accurately translated some Japanese into English (i.e. that the English made sense). He then told us that he lived for years in Berkeley which was pretty cool. Our bus came and we bid him goodnight and then returned to the hotel to go to sleep.

Koi fish in the morning at Gyokutei
Pre-breakfast tea and plums
Pre-breakfast tea and plums
Breakfast
Breakfast
Post-breakfast lounging
Post-breakfast lounging
Awesome coffee cups
Awesome coffee cups
Weird shop we spotted on our way out of Hakone
Weird shop we spotted on our way out of Hakone
Shinkansen just passing through the station
Our train pulling into the station
Yummy train onigiri
Yummy train onigiri
Passing Mount Fuji
Yummy red-bean bun
Yummy red-bean bun
Soy-milk donuts
Soy-milk donuts
Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market
Random shrine in the middle of a busy shopping district
Random shrine in the middle of a busy shopping district
Random shrine in the middle of a busy shopping district
Random shrine in the middle of a busy shopping district
Typical narrow twisty Kyoto street
Typical narrow twisty Kyoto street
More donuts
More donuts
Tonkatsu ramen
Tonkatsu ramen
Spicy szechuan ramen
Spicy szechuan ramen
Gyoza with sauce
Gyoza with sauce
Pistachio donut
Pistachio donut
Craft beers
Craft beers
Kyoto streets at night
Kyoto streets at night
Kyoto streets at night
Kyoto streets at night
Fireflies near the river in Kyoto
Kyoto, Japan

This morning we got up early to beat the crowds in the Arashiyama district of Kyoto. We had breakfast at the only place open near our hotel, a cafe named "Smart Coffee." The food was good, but a little strange. The coffee was excellent though. After breakfast we got on the train and headed to Arashiyama.

Our first stop was the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, a large stand of super tall bamboo trees in the hills at the north-east end of the city. It's super instagrammable, so the crowds can get quite intense. We made it before too many other people showed up though and had a great time walking among the trees. After the grove we walked along some quiet streets to the Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple containing about 8000 statues of Buddha to memorialize the souls of people who died without kin (no photos allowed). Once a year a huge ceremony occurs in which thousands of candles are lit throughout the grounds. Today was not that day, but it was still interesting to see the shrine. Plus it was quite far from the central area of Arashiyama and so there were absolutely no crowds.

We headed back to the main part of Arashiyama next to see the Tenryū-ji Temple, a Zen Buddhist temple that is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. By this time the flood of tourists had arrived to Arashiyama so we stuck to the temple gardens and did not try to go inside the buildings. The grounds are huge so we had a nice time walking by all the trees and flowers and koi ponds.

After the temple we bought some cherry blossom soft serve ice cream and then walked to the river for lunch. We got in to a very soba-centric restaurant, where we had noodles as well as soba water for dipping, soba tea, and other soba-based dishes. There was also rice with a pile of dried whole anchovies which was super tasty. And we enjoyed the meal with a great view of the river.

Next we crossed the river and walked up a tall steep hill to visit the Iwatayama Monkey Park. This is a large forested area with spectacular views of Kyoto and it is inhabited by a troop of over 170 macaques which roam free and wild over the hills. There is a staffed information station and a cage for people through which they can feed the monkeys a carefully controlled amount of food. You can also walk around the park among the monkeys themselves. It was a lot of fun and the monkeys were super cute (especially the babies).

We returned to the hotel for a short rest then went to a few shops to pick up some spices to take home and to get some breakfast foods for tomorrow (we have another early day and don't want to go back to Smart Coffee). Errands complete, we put on some nice clothes and headed out to our main fancy dinner in Kyoto: Tempura Yoshikawa, a tempura-centric restaurant located in a ryokan. The restaurant is very small and we were able to get seats at the counter which let us watch the chef prepare the various courses. He was very quiet, but it was awesome to watch him work. He was fast and precise as he carefully breaded each piece and dropped it in the perfectly clean super hot oil. He tended the pieces until cooked and then took them out and served them immediately, being careful to clear everything out of the oil pot for the next dish. We didn't take any pictures as it was a very intimate experience and it felt like it would have been rude. Our meal consisted of:

  • Anago (salt-water eel) onigiri with pickled onion
  • A shot of pickled seaweed
  • A small dish of corn, tofu, and shrimp mixed together like tuna salad
  • Tuna and sea bream sashimi
  • The tempura:
    • Two shrimp plus two shrimp heads (the heads were the best thing we ate all night by far)
    • Tomato
    • Eggplant
    • Shishito pepper
    • Scallop
    • Japanese ginger
    • Baby corn
    • Mushrooms
    • Anago
    • Swordfish
    • Sweet potato
    • Two more shrimp (no heads this time though)
  • A "refresher" of fresh tomato and celery with sea bream and wasabi
  • Kakiage, "mixed tempura" -- small bits of shrimp and shredded veggies mixed together, breaded, and deep fried, served in miso soup (for Sarah) or with rice and soaked in tea (for me) -- it was amazing to watch him make this
  • Fresh pickled vegetables
  • Passion fruit sorbet with golden kiwi and cherry and tea; all served in the hotel sitting room

All of the food was crazy delicious, and we left with a new definition of "good" tempura. After dinner we popped back to the hotel quickly and then went to "Bar Cordon Noir" to peruse their whiskey selection. I had the Yamazaki Single Malt 18 and Sarah had the Nikka Pure Malt 21. Both were quite lovely. Unfortunately as we were finishing up our drinks some people came into the bar and started smoking so we left. Public smoking in Japan is a bit different than in other countries I've been too. It's pretty much unacceptable to smoke out on the street in public. Many bars and restaurants are totally smoke free too. But some places allow smoking and it is expected that those places are where people must go to smoke outside of their own homes. It's cool because you don't really see butts all over the street, but it means that you have to endure gross smoke to visit certain otherwise great bars.

Before heading back to the hotel to go to sleep we wandered back through the Gion District to see the fireflies again and we also passed by the Yasaka Shrine to see it all lit up at night.

Breakfast
Breakfast
Breakfast
Breakfast
Old-fashioned street car
Old-fashioned street car
In the bamboo grove
In the bamboo grove
In the bamboo grove
In the bamboo grove
In the bamboo grove
In the bamboo grove
In the bamboo grove
In the bamboo grove
In the bamboo grove
In the bamboo grove
In the bamboo grove
In the bamboo grove
Time-lapse of light crowds at the bamboo grove
Random heron
Random heron
On the walk to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
On the walk to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
On the walk to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
On the walk to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
On the walk to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
On the walk to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
On the walk to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
On the walk to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
On the walk to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
On the walk to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
Entrance to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
Entrance to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
In the gardens of Tenryū-ji Temple
Cherry blossom ice cream
Cherry blossom ice cream
Entrace to soba restaurant
Entrace to soba restaurant
Soba lunch
Soba lunch
Soba lunch
Soba lunch
Anchovies on rice
Anchovies on rice
On the bridge over the river
On the bridge over the river
On the hike up to the monkey park
On the hike up to the monkey park
On the hike up to the monkey park
On the hike up to the monkey park
Monkeys
Monkeys
Monkeys
Monkeys
View from the Monkey Park
View from the Monkey Park
Monkeys
Monkeys
Monkies being fed from the human cage
Monkies being fed from the human cage
Monkeys
Monkeys
Monkeys
Monkeys
Monkeys
Monkeys
Monkeys
Monkeys
Terrifying warning
Terrifying warning
After-dinner whiskey
After-dinner whiskey
Shrine at night
Shrine at night
Paper lanterns in the shrine
Paper lanterns in the shrine
Paper lanterns in the shrine
Paper lanterns in the shrine
Kyoto, Japan

This morning we got up early and ate some yogurt and granola in our hotel before catching transit to Fushimi Inari-taisha, a large Shinto shrine in the hills at the eastern edge of Kyoto. This shrine is devoted to Inari, the spirit of foxes, fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture, industry, and general prosperity. The main highlight of the shrine is the thousands of torii (gates) that line a trail that winds to the top of the mountain at which the shrine is located. The torii have been donated by Japanese businesses for centuries and each is inscribed with information about the donar. Upon reaching the shrine we immediately began the 2.5 mile (with 764' of elevation gain) hike to the top through the many torii.

The hike was great; we managed to beat both the crowds and the heat by arriving early and we really enjoyed seeing all the smaller sub-shrines and fox statues everywhere. The views were great too! We were very happy we chose to walk all the way to the top instead of just doing the shorter loop near the bottom.

On the way back to the shrine from the mountain top we stopped for second breakfast at Vermillion Cafe. They serve the most western-style breakfast we have seen so far in Japan, including proper avocado toast and nice yogurt with granola. We've been enjoying the Japanese food, but it was nice to have something more familiar to our stomachs after the long hike.

After second breakfast we explored the actual shrine a bit, getting a chance to observe some ceremonies that were happening today. Then we headed to the historic Higashiyama District to get a taste of old Kyoto. Its winding narrow lanes are full of traditional buildings housing fun and interesting shops and restaurants. We had pre-booked a traditional tea ceremony at "Tea Ceremony Camellia Flower" so we went there first.

We joined a small group of other tourists in a traditional tatami-floored room where a woman in a fancy kimono explained the history and significance of the formal tea ceremony. With that context, she then prepared a bowl of matcha in the ritual manner, in complete silence. It was amazing to watch the precision and care with which our host made the tea. Then she explained the specific steps she had performed and why they are important. Next we were served a small yuzu flavoured gelatin sweet and she helped us each make a bowl of matcha in the traditional way. The bowls we used were beautiful and the tea turned out great! It was a very fun experience (even though Sarah had some trouble properly swishing her tea with the whisk).

After the tea ceremony we explored the Higashiyama District a bit more, stopping in shops and eating various foods we found interesting. We found the Kyoto outpost of the SF-based Dandelion Chocolate and also enjoyed looking around another Studio Ghibli shop. Eventually we made our way up to the Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist Temple where we had some good views of the historic area, but were quickly chased away by the insane crowds of tourists.

We returned to the hotel on foot to rest a bit before heading out again for the evening. We picked up a few gifts at SouSou and then headed to an Izakaya (a Japanese pub) for dinner. We enjoyed some Japanese craft beers with a variety of pub snacks like bread+cheese, sausage, skewers, tempura, and amazing yakisoba (stir-fried noodle dish). After dinner we picked up some eclairs for dessert at a Maison Kayser bakery and then returned to the hotel to sleep after a long day of much walking.

Breakfast of champions
Breakfast of champions
At Fushimi Inari station
At Fushimi Inari station
At Fushimi Inari station
At Fushimi Inari station
Fushimi Inari-taisha
Fushimi Inari-taisha
At Fushimi Inari-taisha
At Fushimi Inari-taisha
At Fushimi Inari-taisha
At Fushimi Inari-taisha
At Fushimi Inari-taisha
At Fushimi Inari-taisha
At Fushimi Inari-taisha
At Fushimi Inari-taisha
At Fushimi Inari-taisha
At Fushimi Inari-taisha
Walking through the torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Walking through the torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Us with the Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Us with the Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Walking through the torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Wild beasties inhabit this area
Wild beasties inhabit this area
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Sub-shrine Fushimi Inari-taisha
Sub-shrine Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Cleansing dragon water
Cleansing dragon water
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Fox and torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Fox and torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Sub-shrine at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Sub-shrine at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Sub-shrine at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Sub-shrine at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Sub-shrine at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Sub-shrine at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Sub-shrine at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Sub-shrine at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Walking through a large sub-shrine at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Many paper cranes at a sub-shrine
Many paper cranes at a sub-shrine
Sub-shrine at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Sub-shrine at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Us with the Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Us with the Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Sarah doing the Chihiro
Sarah doing the Chihiro
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Prayers at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Prayers at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Frogs at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Frogs at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Coffee at Vermillion
Coffee at Vermillion
Avocado toast at Vermillion
Avocado toast at Vermillion
Lanterns at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Lanterns at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Paper cranes at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Paper cranes at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Paper cranes at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Paper cranes at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Mailing post cards
Mailing post cards
Entrance to the Ghibli store
Entrance to the Ghibli store
Random noms
Random noms
Historic Higashiyama District
Historic Higashiyama District
Tea ceremony
Tea ceremony
Yuzu sweet
Yuzu sweet
Sarah's matcha bowl
Sarah's matcha bowl
Sarah's matcha
Sarah's matcha
My matcha bowl
My matcha bowl
My matcha
My matcha
Dandelion Chocolate Kyoto
Dandelion Chocolate Kyoto
Matcha ice cream
Matcha ice cream
Historic Higashiyama District
Historic Higashiyama District
Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist Temple
Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist Temple
Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist Temple
Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist Temple
Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist Temple
Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist Temple
Time lapse of epic crowds near Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist Temple
Epic crowds leaving the temple area
Epic crowds leaving the temple area
Beer at the Izakaya
Beer at the Izakaya
Me very excited for the yakisoba
Me very excited for the yakisoba
Eclairs for dessert
Eclairs for dessert
Tokyo, Japan

We found a fun cafe yesterday evening so we headed there first thing this morning for breakfast. Ikariya serves excellent coffee and tasty toasts with different toppings. After breakfast we picked up some melon pan from Oreno Pan and then headed back to the hotel to check out. We stashed our bags at the train station and did a bit of shopping in the mall and department store connected to the station. In particular we picked up bento boxes for lunch on the train and went back to Sizuyapan for more tasty buns.

Soon it was time for our super express Shinkansen back to Tokyo, making only a couple stops along the way. The train was fast and pleasant once again, and we saw Mt. Fuji a little too. We both enjoyed our bento boxes, Sarah's was beef-centric and mine was more traditional featuring a collection of small items (many of which I had trouble identifying). After we arrived in Tokyo we headed to our hotel and checked in.

Our new hotel is located in the upper floors of a tall office building and our room is on the 31st floor. All of the rooms on our floor have been individually painted and decorated by local artists and ours features murals of bamboo forests. Our view is amazing too: we can see a lot of the city and directly below us is a busy train station which I spent a long time just watching as trains constantly entered and left. Super cool!

After getting settled we headed out to try Café de L’ambre, an ultra famous coffee shop. It was founded in 1948 and it's original owner, Sekiguchi Ichiro, worked there until his death a couple years ago (when he was over 100 years old). He devoted his life to coffee, always seeking out new beans, new techniques, and new devices. He even invented and patented a custom kettle for brewing. His shop serves only coffee, and even after his death it's clear that the shop is run with the same care and devotion. In addition to roasting and brewing coffee they also age coffee beans, something that I've never heard of before. It doesn't always work out but when it does the results are quite spectacular. We were able to get a seat when we entered and were given thick menus from which to pick our coffee. There were dozens of possibilities and we each chose a different aged bean. After we ordered we watched as the barista very carefully measured out the beans and slowly brewed our cups. I've never seen a coffee made with such care. Both cups were delicious and although it was more expensive than a coffee at a fancy shop in San Francisco, it wasn't that much more money and it was far far more unique and special.

After coffee we tried to visit a park near our hotel, but found out that it closed at 5pm. Instead we explored the area directly around our hotel which features a ton of above ground and under ground walkways. It's clearly a dense white-collar office region and it's easy to imagine the crush of people that move through the walkways during commuter times. In our exploration we stumbled across a giant steampunk clock/art piece and were able to see it chime at 6pm (see the video below).

Back at the hotel we put on some nice clothes for dinner and then headed to the special lounge on our floor to enjoy some free wine and sunset views of the city. Dinner tonight was our wedding gift from Anthony, a meal at a Michelin starred restaurant of our choice in Tokyo. We chose the 2-star French restaurant Hommage. Tokyo has some of the finest French cuisine outside of France so we were pretty excited to check out an example.

The meal and the service were both exquisite. It was definitely one of the best meals either of us have ever had. Upon sitting down we were each gifted with a lovely set of wooden chop sticks and presented with bread and the most wonderful salted butter ever. We ordered a glass of wine and then got down to the business of our multi-course meal.

  • Amuse-bouche
    • Chickpea croquette and fromage de tâte
    • Cucumber and jellyfish tart (surprisingly delicious)
    • Quail egg with dasi-vinegar jelly
    • Horsemeat spring roll with horse radish
    • Tomato soup with goat cheese mousse and green pea foam
  • Daikon rolls filled with shima-aji (fish and fish eggs) with cheese sauce
  • Crispy fried amadai fish with chrysanthemum sauce
  • Wild asparagus in ham broth (so so good)
  • Duck foie gras with mushrooms, ham, and greens (super good)
  • Roasted Kyoto duck
  • A small chocolate filled sweet served on a wooden spoon (never quite found out what it was but it was great)
  • Citrus jelly with cream and cacao
  • Vanilla-rum-raisin cake with vanilla ice cream
  • Fresh made financiers
  • Canelé pastries (Bonus dessert!)
  • Coffee

After dinner we enjoyed a nice stroll to the subway past Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple, nicely lit for the night.

Breakfast toast
Breakfast toast
Coffee
Coffee
Melon pan!!
Melon pan!!
Sizuyapan!!
Sizuyapan!!
Sarah's bento box on the train
Sarah's bento box on the train
My bento box on the train
My bento box on the train
Sizuyapan!
Sizuyapan!
Sizuyapan!
Sizuyapan!
Sizuyapan!
Sizuyapan!
Zooming by Mt. Fuji on the Shinkansen
Our new hotel room
Our new hotel room
Raccoons!
Raccoons!
Fancy coffee shop
Fancy coffee shop
Sarah and her fancy coffee
Sarah and her fancy coffee
Me and my fancy coffee
Me and my fancy coffee
Weird apartment building we passed
Weird apartment building we passed
Gas station where the pumps are in the ceiling
Gas station where the pumps are in the ceiling
Watching the trains from our hotel window
Watching the trains from our hotel window
Time lapse of the trains outside our hotel window
Steampunk art clock thing chiming the hour outside our hotel
Sensō-ji at sunset
Sensō-ji at sunset
Outside Hommage
Outside Hommage
Ready for dinner at Hommage
Ready for dinner at Hommage
Ready for dinner at Hommage
Ready for dinner at Hommage
The menu (click for bigger)
The menu (click for bigger)
Bread and butter/olive oil with wine and gifted chopsticks
Bread and butter/olive oil with wine and gifted chopsticks
Chickpea croquette and fromage de tâte
Chickpea croquette and fromage de tâte
Cucumber and jellyfish tart
Cucumber and jellyfish tart
Quail egg with dasi-vinegar jelly
Quail egg with dasi-vinegar jelly
Horsemeat spring roll with horse radish
Horsemeat spring roll with horse radish
Tomato soup with goat cheese mousse and green pea foam
Tomato soup with goat cheese mousse and green pea foam
Daikon rolls filled with shima-aji (fish and fish eggs) with cheese sauce
Daikon rolls filled with shima-aji (fish and fish eggs) with cheese sauce
Crispy fried amadai fish with chrysanthemum sauce
Crispy fried amadai fish with chrysanthemum sauce
Wild asparagus in ham broth
Wild asparagus in ham broth
Duck foie gras with mushrooms, ham, and greens
Duck foie gras with mushrooms, ham, and greens
Roasted Kyoto duck
Roasted Kyoto duck
A small chocolate filled sweet served on a wooden spoon
A small chocolate filled sweet served on a wooden spoon
Citrus jelly with cream and cacao
Citrus jelly with cream and cacao
Vanilla-rum-raisin cake with vanilla ice cream
Vanilla-rum-raisin cake with vanilla ice cream
Financiers
Financiers
Canelé pastries (bonus dessert!)
Canelé pastries (bonus dessert!)
Coffee
Coffee
Sensō-ji at night
Sensō-ji at night
Sensō-ji at night
Sensō-ji at night
Sensō-ji at night
Sensō-ji at night
Sensō-ji at night
Sensō-ji at night
Tokyo, Japan

This morning we slept in a little and then walked to breakfast at Toranomon Koffee. We had yummy avocado toast with delicious coffee and followed that up with Portuguese custard tarts from Nata de Cristiano’s. Next we took the train to the Naka-Megura district which is a nice area around the Megura river filled with super hipster shops and restaurants. It was early though so most things were still closed. We wandered along the river and came across a large group of school children helping catch small fish in the river. Seemed like some sort of scientific endeavour but we couldn't quite figure it out. It was super cute though.

For lunch we went to Seirinkan for really great Neapolitan pizza. This stuff was legit. Like everything we've seen in Japan the owner takes a tremendous amount of pride in his work and the results show it.

Next we stopped into a random Birkenstock store in Shibuya to get new sandals for Sarah. Nothing fancy, just standard sandals from a standard Birk store. But the customer service was fantastic even with a bit of a language barrier. Really cool.

After Sarah changed into her new sandals we took transit to the Nakano area to get coffee and to see Nakano Broadway, a huge shopping complex with some similarity to Akihabara (i.e. both have tons of shops dedicated to electronics, collectables, anime, etc.). The area is less popular with foreign tourists and we immediately ran into more language barriers than we had so far. First we tried to get coffee from a well-rated cafe and were turned away without much explanation (maybe it was too full? we weren't sure). Next we went to a coffee kiosk in a small mall and thought we had ordered coffee but were instead presented with a bag of beans after we paid. It took some time to sort out and get a refund, but through it all the staff were very friendly.

Nakano Broadway was crazy -- enormous and full of every imaginable thing. We just wandered for a while with no particular goal in mind.

The main event today was a visit to the Studio Ghibli museum. Studio Ghibli is arguably the most internationally famous Japanese film studio. It focuses on animated movies, five of which have received Oscar nominations for best animated film (with "Spirited Away" winning in 2003). Sarah and I both enjoy their movies quite a bit (in particular "Howl's Moving Castle" and "Spirited Away") so we were very excited for this visit. Getting tickets was a bit of an ordeal as they sell out almost instantly and are only offered online from one site that doesn't work very well. We succeeded though and the museum was worth it. The museum itself is full of awesome architectural bits that feel like they're out of a Ghibli film and the exhibits feature tons of concept art and actual animation cells and background paintings. Our favourite part was a recreation of a small animation studio that was crammed with so much detail we walked through it twice. We also saw a great short animated film exclusive to the museum. Photos were not allowed inside the museum to encourage people to experience the place more fully.

For dinner tonight we went to the famous Tonki Tonkatsu for delicious deep fried pork cutlets. The food was delicious and the experience was great too. The head chef runs the insanely busy restaurant with intense precision. When you enter he immediately takes your order (there are only two choices: fatty or lean) and then you sit down on waiting benches around the edge of the restaurant. All seating is at a counter surrounding the cooking area so everyone can see the entire process. The head chef keeps track of the order everyone arrived and when it's your turn he points at you and then points to your seat (it's important to pay attention!). Once seated your order is served and you eat and then leave. Watching them cook was like watching a finely oiled machine, each person has one job and does it to perfection. The food was fantastic and we were in and out in less than an hour despite dozens of people being ahead of us in line.

After dinner we returned to the hotel to pack and sleep because tomorrow we head to Hawaii!

Toranomon!
Toranomon!
Breakfast
Breakfast
Breakfast dessert
Breakfast dessert
Cool random building
Cool random building
Cool random building
Cool random building
Kids in the river catching fish
Kids in the river catching fish
Seirinkan Pizza
Seirinkan Pizza
Seirinkan Pizza
Seirinkan Pizza
Seirinkan Pizza
Seirinkan Pizza
Cool stairs at Seirinkan Pizza
Cool stairs at Seirinkan Pizza
New sandals
New sandals
Hard-won coffee
Hard-won coffee
On the shuttle to the Ghibli Museum
On the shuttle to the Ghibli Museum
Ghibli Museum
Ghibli Museum
Ghibli Museum
Ghibli Museum
On the roof of the Ghibli Museum
On the roof of the Ghibli Museum
Dedicated shuttle leaving the Ghibli Museum
Dedicated shuttle leaving the Ghibli Museum
Tonkatsu dinner
Tonkatsu dinner
Super clean, super efficient kitchen
Super clean, super efficient kitchen
Cool subway stained glass art
Cool subway stained glass art
Tokyo, Japan

This morning we got up early, checked out of the hotel, and headed to Tokyo station. We deposited our luggage in lockers and then ventured out into the enormous commercial parts of the station to find delicious breakfast. Unfortunately all of the restaurants were closed. We didn't really plan this one in advance as the station is so full of restaurants that we thought it would just work out. I guess they don't do breakfast though? So we settled on the only place open, McDonald's. A little disappointing, but did the trick.

Next we got on a train to go to Odaiba, an artificial island filled with malls and museums. Our main destination was "teamLab Borderless" a huge "digital art" museum. This incredibly instagrammable space is a series of rooms filled with "borderless" art work. Most is projected on the walls and floors from hundreds of digital projectors and much of it is interactive with sensors tracking your movements allowing you to affect the displays on the walls. The art itself was mostly abstract and all pretty neat. There was a large kids area too, including a fun activity where you can colour in a selection of creatures on paper and then they'd scan the page and your creature would then venture out into the space to mingle with others. We also visited the tea house where projectors lit up your tea with different flowers as you drank it. It was a really fun space and you could spend an entire day inside easily.

After the museum we picked up our bags and headed to the airport. We checked in and then, not thinking, we headed to the United lounge to wait for the plane (lounge access because we flew business class). It was nice, but nothing special. While we waited I realized that we could actually go to the ANA lounge as well so we quickly ran there and were sad to find out how awesome it was in comparison. We only had 10 minutes to enjoy it so we weren't able to experience the noodle bar, sushi bar, or other snacks, but we did partake in some self-serve whisky. At the entrance to the lounge was a model of ANA's plane that is painted like R2D2. The model was signed by the whole cast of The Force Awakens and was super neat. Then as we left the lounge we looked out and saw the real R2D2 plane was actually parked right outside! We quickly snapped a photo and then rushed to board our flight.

We had high expectations when we planned our trip to Japan and they were exceeded in every possible way. We couldn't have had a better time and only regretted that we didn't have more time to spend in this amazing country. We'll definitely come back in the future!

Sad breakfast is sad
Sad breakfast is sad
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
Colouring my creature
Colouring my creature
My creature out on the floor
My creature out on the floor
My creature out on the floor
Sarah's creature
Sarah's creature
Sarah's creature out on the floor
Sarah's creature out on the floor
Sarah's creature out on the floor
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless Tea House entrance
At teamLab Borderless Tea House entrance
At teamLab Borderless Tea House
At teamLab Borderless Tea House
At teamLab Borderless Tea House
At teamLab Borderless Tea House
At teamLab Borderless Tea House
At teamLab Borderless Tea House
At teamLab Borderless Tea House
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
At teamLab Borderless
Model of ANA R2D2 plane
Model of ANA R2D2 plane
Signatures on the plane
Signatures on the plane
The real plane!!
The real plane!!
Puako, Hawai'i

Due to time zones and the international date line we arrived in Honolulu about twelve hours before we left Tokyo, so we got to experience June 3rd twice this year. The flight was uneventful and we were able to sleep a little in our fancy lie-flat seats. In Honolulu we had to wait five hours for our connection to Kona on the Big Island because we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time at immigration due to my greencard still being in progress. Of course that meant that immigration was super efficient and we had to kill 4.5 hours at the airport. We were too tired to try to go see the city, so we found a breakfast place and then used a random Priority Pass lounge until it was time to leave.

The flight to Kona was short and fun and we were seated with a pilot for Hawaiian airlines who was very chatty and told us lots of fun stories about flying around the islands. The airport at Kona was pretty small and almost completely outdoors. All the gates had outdoor waiting areas and the luggage claim was also outside. We picked up our rental car and drove thirty minutes north to the Fairmont Orchid, our hotel for this portion of the trip. The drive was amazing with awesome views of old lava flows and the ocean and the hotel is spectacular too. Michal had called ahead so we were greeted with champagne in our room which overlooks the large central courtyard and the ocean.

After getting settled and cleaned up we took a walk to explore the resort and try to get adjusted to the new time zone. We saw tons of weird birds, two sea turtles, koi fish, and lots of flowers. We also got some coffee and did a bunch of sitting around in various places. It's really beautiful here and we can already feel ourselves slowing down after the crazy hustle of Tokyo. For dinner we ate at the outdoor Hale Kai restaurant overlooking the ocean while the sun set.

In a desperate bid to stay up until bed time we went for a late night swim in the pool and then lounged in the hot tub for a bit. Both were great but we soon returned to the room and went to sleep.

Driving to the Fairmont Orchid
Driving to the Fairmont Orchid
Driving to the Fairmont Orchid
Driving to the Fairmont Orchid
Our room and balcony
Our room and balcony
On the balcony
On the balcony
Champagne
Champagne
What day is it? Where am I?
What day is it? Where am I?
Weird birds
Weird birds
Ocean
Ocean
Palm trees
Palm trees
Weird bird
Weird bird
Weird bird
Koi
Koi
Weird bird
Weird bird
Sea turtle!
Sea turtle!
Sea turtle beaching area
Sea turtle beaching area
Weird bird
Weird bird
At dinner
At dinner
At dinner
At dinner
At dinner
At dinner
At dinner
At dinner
Sea turtles!
Sea turtles!
Pictures at sunset
Pictures at sunset
At dinner
At dinner
Torches all over the resort are lit at sunset by a running man
Torches all over the resort are lit at sunset by a running man
Sunset
Sunset
Sunset
Sunset
Sunset
Sunset
Puako, Hawai'i

This morning we slept in (glorious) and then went to breakfast at the enormous breakfast buffet. There was tons of awesome fruit and every type of breakfast food imaginable. We ate slowly outside, guarding our food from crazy birds that would steal it if you looked away for too long. Then we went walking among the tidepools for a short while where we saw three types of sea urchins (including a red slate pencil urchin), two eels, and some small black crabs.

Today's main event was an 80 minute ocean-side couples massage at the hotel spa. We went early to enjoy the spa's saunas and steam rooms and to relax in the garden before our treatment. The massage took place in a cabana right beside the ocean and was totally amazing. After it was done we moved about 10 feet out of the cabana to comfy chairs overlooking the water where we sat for another 30 minutes watching the waves and seeing sea turtles occasionally surface to breathe. Sooooooo relaxing.

We had lunch back at Hale Kai and then went snorkeling in the Fairmont's private lagoon area. As it was later in the day the water was a bit murky but we still saw so many awesome things.

  • All the types of sea urchins we saw when tide-pooling this morning (black, purple, red slate pencil)
  • A weird large mollusk thing
  • A huge school of 5" long silver fish right near the shore
  • Tons of yellow tang
  • A huge angelfish
  • Some parrot fish, including some that would fight each other making audible noises underwater
  • Cool polka-dot boxfish
  • Lots of nice coral

Next we splashed around in the water a bit near the beach and then rented a two person kayak to go explore the lagoon a bit more. We saw lots of awesome crabs on the rocks, some cool fish, and had a brief sea turtle sighting. We played in the water some more after returning the kayak and then finally dried off and went to find dinner in the nearby village of Waikoloa. We got some Mexican food and picked up a few groceries for breakfasts on days we want to leave the hotel early. We also saw some feral goats beside the road on our drive (they were cute, but apparently super destructive as so many introduced species tend to be).

Back at the hotel we watched the sunset and drank beer and ate cake on our balcony. Then we went for a walk down to the beach to see the stars and to look for more ocean critters. We startled some enormous crabs and then headed over to the area where the sea turtles like to come ashore. There was one turtle and a large fishing sea bird and TWO MANTA RAYS! The hotel shines a light out on the ocean at this spot which attracts plankton which attracts manta rays. Two of them were making loops in and out of the lagoon coming right up to the shore with their wing tips often coming out of the water. It was super cool. We can't wait for our manta ray snorkel tomorrow!

We had a quick soak in the hot tub and then went to bed. So far this part of the trip has been fantastic!

Breakfast
Breakfast
Orchids on the hotel grounds
Orchids on the hotel grounds
Sea urchins
Sea urchins
Tide-pooling
Tide-pooling
Flower
Flower
Lunch
Lunch
Stray, but healthy looking cats outside the hotel
Stray, but healthy looking cats outside the hotel
Feral goats
Manta Ray!!!!
Puako, Hawai'i

This morning we got up early and had a light breakfast in our room. Then we quickly went out to the lagoon to snorkel while the water was clearest. It was pretty great once again. In addition to all the fish we saw yesterday, we were also able to swim a bit with a sea turtle (he was doing a handstand on the ocean floor to eat something down there). Other new fish included some long-nosed fish, an eel swimming in the open water, and some new colourful fish. So great!

We sat around on the beach on lounge chairs for a while and then went to look at the tide pools some more. In addition to the ubiquitous sea urchins we saw a brittle star, some sea cucumbers, a weird purple thing we never identified, an eel, and an enormous crab that was mid-molt. So many critters this morning!!

For lunch we got in the car and drove just over an hour south to Kaaloa's Super J's for pork laulau (slow cooked leaf wrapped pork) and kalua pork, two native Hawaiian dishes. The restaurant was basically a roadside diner and the staff were super friendly. The food was amazing and totally worth the drive. After lunch we went to Greenwell Farms, a coffee farm that gives tours. They had tons of brewed 100% Kona coffee available to sample and the tour itself was pretty good. We saw two chameleons too which was awesome.

Next we drove north to Kona to check in with Kona Diving Company, our tour operator for the evening. Tonight we did an extended manta ray snorkeling adventure. The coast here has a resident population of about 100 manta rays and several companies run night snorkeling tours where they shine light down into the water to attract plankton, which in turn attracts the manta rays to feed. KDC seemed to have great reviews so we chose them.

After checking in we killed some time drinking weird cider at Ola Brew across the street and then headed down to the docks to meet our boat. About ten other people were on the tour, most for scuba diving, but a couple others for snorkeling like us. As we rode out to the dive site the staff explained fun things about the manta rays other wild life we might see as well as the itinerary for the evening. The boat was stocked with tons of snacks and drinks so we nibbled while we listened.

At the dive site we went into the water immediately to get used to the area before dark. The reef was much deeper there so it was a bit more intimidating. It was great to explore in the day time though so that the night swimming would be less scary. We saw lots of great fish including trumpetfish, pufferfish, triggerfish, batfish, and raccoon butterflyfish. Out of the water we snacked some more and listened to more information from the staff as the sun set. While chatting a Hawaiian monk seal appeared and decided to have a nice scratch on the anchor line of our boat. With only 1400 individuals remaining these seals are extremely endangered so it was amazing to see one. She was quite large and very friendly and hung out for about ten minutes before taking off. Super cool!!

Once it was dark we got back into the water with special surf boards modified to have bright lights on their bottoms and handles around the sides. One of the staff would drag the board around the water while we just floated holding the handles. The light quickly did its job and the water was soon cloudy with plankton. Tons of fish appeared to feast and then we were treated to four manta rays coming to enjoy the food too. We saw three females and one male, including one of the larger specimens in the area. All the rays are tracked and have identifying marks that the tour operators recognize.

To feed the manta rays do swooping front and back flips under the surf boards, scooping up huge mouthfuls of plankton. They'd get within inches of the boards, and with up to 14' wingspans that meant they got within inches of us floating on the surface too. As they passed we were able to look down their huge throats and right into their eyes. It always seemed like they would hit us, but we were never touched and could not even feel their passage through the water. It was probably the coolest thing we've ever seen or ever will see. The whole experience went on for 45 minutes, and we could have kept going if we hadn't been cold (the water kinda of drains the heat out of you after a while). We didn't bring a GoPro or underwater camera so we don't have any videos from our evening, but there are a ton of videos on YouTube that accurately portray the experience. Try this one or this one or do a search for Kona manta ray snorkel if those links don't work.

Back on the boat we had some more snacks and started back to the dock. By this point Sarah was feeling pretty seasick which is always a miserable way to be. She said the experience was totally worth it though, and the staff brought her some ginger tea which helped a bit. While we rode we got to watch a lightning storm in the distance which was pretty cool. Once we were back on land we drove to the hotel and went straight to sleep after a hot shower.

Awesome pork lunch
Awesome pork lunch
Chameleon!
Chameleon!
Chameleon!
Chameleon!
Coffee beans
Coffee beans
At the coffee farm
At the coffee farm
At the coffee farm
At the coffee farm
At the coffee farm
At the coffee farm
Sunset from the boat
Sunset from the boat
Puako, Hawai'i

We slept in this morning after the late night last night and then had a small breakfast by the pool. Eventually we headed out to Waimea to mail some post cards and then continued on to see Waipio Valley. This is a large deep valley where the floor is almost 2000' below much of the surrounding terrain. There's a 4WD-only road that takes you down which you can also hike if you don't have such a vehicle. We hiked of course.

We followed the valley floor to the ocean to enjoy a large black sand beach. It was super pretty but the ocean was much too rough for swimming so we just sat on the sand and walked up and down a bit. We saw a number of possibly wild horses, or maybe they belonged to the native farmers that live in the valley, we weren't sure. They clearly had the run of the valley floor though.

The hike back out of the valley was slow due to the incredibly steep grade on the ascent (over 25% in many places) so we took frequent breaks to enjoy the view. It's a really amazing place. After we finished we drove back to Waimea to get coffee and the famous Big Island malasadas (donuts filled with fruit) which were amazing. Then we took the long way back to the hotel, circling north to the far north-west tip of the island, which is the oldest section geologically speaking. The scenery was fantastic.

Back at the hotel we had a simple dinner at Hale Kai and enjoyed some beers in our room. Then we went out to see the sea turtles and manta rays and had a dip in the pool and hot tub before going to bed. This was a very chill and relaxing day!

Waipio Valley
Waipio Valley
Waipio Valley
Waipio Valley
Waipio Valley
Waipio Valley
Sarah running down the road into the valley
Sarah running down the road into the valley
Native fish pond on the valley floor
Native fish pond on the valley floor
Mongoose (an invasive species)
Mongoose (an invasive species)
Horses
Horses
Cool red bird
Cool red bird
Mongoose (an invasive species)
Mongoose (an invasive species)
Black sand beach
Black sand beach
Black sand beach
Black sand beach
Black sand beach
Black sand beach
Black sand beach
Black sand beach
Looking up the valley from the beach
Looking up the valley from the beach
Black sand beach
Black sand beach
Horse with a passenger
Horse with a passenger
Creeper horse
Creeper horse
Baby horse
Baby horse
Mildly concerning sign
Mildly concerning sign
Waipio Valley
Waipio Valley
Malasadas
Malasadas
Green rolling hills in the oldest part of the island
Green rolling hills in the oldest part of the island
Sunset back at the hotel
Sunset back at the hotel
Puako, Hawai'i
Puako, Hawai'i
San Francisco, California