We're ending our coverage of our recent trip to Tokyo with a few more photos and stories, along with a more comprehensive listing of where we ate, where we stayed, and what we saw during our time there. Later this week: a recipe. (We promise!)
First up, Shibuya Crossing. You've probably seen shots of this in movies before -- it's the insanely crowded pedestrian crossing in the middle of Tokyo's Shibuya neighborhood. We stayed right next to here, and we could have watched this scene for hours a day -- it was mesmerizing.
What is this madness, you ask? It's a scene from Tokyo's famed Robot Restaurant, a dinner/show experience that's really a bit of a tourist trap, but depending on your kitsch tolerance, it could be for you. The show itself makes no sense -- native peoples battling robots -- and there's no real food (save for popcorn and some sad sushi), so we recommend eating beforehand.
But it's big and loud and crazy and fun. Go to the website -- it gives you a good sense of the experience.
We went to a sumo practice!
Sumo is seasonal, and tournaments weren't on while we were in Tokyo. So we went to watch early-morning practice at a stable called Arashio Beyo.
It was fascinating and looked incredibly difficult, with round after round of punishing collisions.
Getting on a rooftop is a must-do in Tokyo, because views help you make sense of this vast city. This is a shot from the roof (literally, the outdoor helipad) at Tokyo City View high-rise in Roppongi Hills. Just behind Clay you can see the iconic Tokyo Tower.
One of the most unusual experiences of our trip was a visit to the Naoshima art island. It was more than dozen small installations and a handful of large, incredible modern museums. We were just floored by the Chichu Art Museum, a staggeringly beautiful subterranean collection of contemporary art, lit only by natural light pouring in from above. (You aren't allowed to take any photos at Chichu, but these photos give you a good sense of it.)
We were also taken by this incredible Bruce Nauman piece (titled "100 Live and Die"), above, at the Benesse House Museum, another art museum on the island.
This Yellow Pumpkin installation piece, by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, has become a symbol of Naoshima Island.
Miyajima, an island a short ferry from Hiroshima, is overrun by deer, who get very up close and personal with visitors. We saw them eating tourists' maps, stealing food and chasing toddlers. It's charming! And sort of disturbing!
Here's one of the deer with Zach.
Japan's taxis are very nice (the doors swing open automatically when you approach!). But the tax drivers are especially adorable, with their uniforms and gloves.
As you might already know, Japan is rife with animal cafes, where you can hang out with some critters while you sip a coffee. In Tokyo alone, you'll find cat cafes, hedgehog cafes, penguin cafes and more.
We stopped in at this owl cafe in Kyoto for some quality owl time.
Sundown in Kyoto is an incredible time to sit on the riverbank. People bring beer and sit along the water. It's the best ticket in town.
These are the famous Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto. There are thousands of these gates lining multiple pathways up to the mountaintop shrine. We went at dawn on our very last morning in Japan and had the place almost completely to ourselves. It was a truly magical experience.
**Photo at top of the post: Saki-barrel offerings at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.
And now, some recommendations:
Where to Eat
Masakichi Yakitori. Hands-down our favorite meal experience in Tokyo (and possibly in all of Japan), this upscale yakitori restaurant is worth a visit. Located in the Musashi Koyama neighborhood in Meguro.
Iwasa Sushi at the Tsukiji fish market. Fresh and delicious sushi for breakfast.
Afuri. Contemporary ramen shop with a few locations, mostly in the Ebisu neighborhood.
Kugatsu-Do. Delicious ramen in the Shibuya neighborhood.
Omoide Yokocho. Have an adventure by dining in this bustling alley that translates as "memory alley." There are many yakitori restaurants but also some excellent ramen places.
Rokumonya. Try okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes) in the Shinjuku neighborhood.
Daikokuya. Delicous tempura in the Asakusa neighborhood.
Kayaba Bakery. If you're in the Tokyo neighborhood of Yanaka, this is a must-visit. Their breads are delicious.
Where to Stay
We spent 6 nights at the Shibuya Excel Hotel, which is located above the Shibuya train station complex. It was a lovely place to stay -- perfectly situated for traveling around the city and with good views of the famed Shibuya crossing.
What to See
Shop + Explore: We spent the bulk of our days in Tokyo doing two things: exploring neighborhoods and shopping. We would just pick a new neighborhood each day to explore. (Our favorite shopping/strolling was along Cat Street from Harajuku to Shibuya, and in the Daikanyama area.) We highly recommend the Lonely Planet pocket travel guide for Tokyo -- it's an excellent resource.
See Some Sumo. We made the early morning trek to see sumo practice (sumo competitions were not happening while we were in town) at Arashio. You stand in the street and watch through the windows, but it's fascinating.
Get High. We debated between rooftop experiences, but landed at the City View at Roppongi Hills. The views are spectacular.
Of course, the Tsukiji fish market. Yes, it's likely the most popular tourist destination in Tokyo, but well worth the visit. The market will move in November 2016, so get there soon!
Where to Eat
Hassei. Excellent, low-key place to try okonomiyaki.
Kaki-ya on nearby Miyajima Island. Fantastic oysters.
Where to Stay
We stayed at Sunroute Hotel, which was in an excellent location. The hotel itself is fairly dated. The rooms are comfortable but modest.
What to See
Peace Memorial Museum and the adjacent Peace Park. An incredibly moving and unforgettable experience.
We spent a day on the nearby island of Miyajima (it's a 40-minute ferry ride from downtown Hiroshima), to see the famous Itsukushima Shrine with its "floating" torii gate. The island is populated with overly friendly deer, and you can hike/gondola to the top of the mountain for an amazing view.
Naoshima Island. We used Hiroshima as a jumping off point to this rural island that's filled with amazing contemporary art. It's not an easy journey to get there, but the experience is well worth it. We didn't stay on the island, but that's a possibility to make the travel easier. If you're a contemporary art fan, it's a must-visit.
Check the baseball schedule -- if the Carps are in town, go see them at Mazda Zoom Zoom stadium.
Where to Eat
Hafuu Honten. An incredible place to try Japanese steak.
%Arabica. This hipster coffee house has multiple locations across the city (and great coffee).
Where to Stay
We also had a Ryokan experience while in Kyoto, staying at Motonago Ryokan. The ryokan experience wasn't our favorite thing we did. But you may enjoy it. If we had it to do over again, we might have chosen a ryokan that's out in the countryside.
For our other nights in Kyoto we were at Hotel Sunline. We liked staying there -- their staff was very helpful and our room was well-appointed. It's in a great location in the Gion neighborhood.
What to See
Fushimi Inari-taisha (pictured above), the famed orange gates. We went twice -- the first was late morning on a Sunday and it was so crowded we could barely move. We returned on our final day in Kyoto, very early in the morning, and there was barely anyone there. We raced to the top of the mountain and it was a great way to spend a morning.
OTHER TIPS FOR YOUR TRIP
Buy a JR Rail Pass: We opted to buy Japan Rail passes in advance, and highly recommend doing so. They allowed us for easy booking/travel between Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. The passes were also used extensively in Tokyo for the train system. They're expensive (we sprang for the higher-class "Green" tickets; you can get better deals for general boarding and if you only plan to use trains in the Tokyo area.) The rail pass must be purchased from outside Japan; you activate it once you arrive in country.
Snack at Convenience Stores: We ate multiple times a day from the country's largest convenience store chains: 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart. They have incredible snacks. Plus they were our go-to when we needed to get cash.
Visit an Animal Cafe. There are animal cafes all over the country, but they're especially concentrated in Tokyo. We read about cafes featuring cats, penguins, dogs, rabbits, snakes, hedgehogs, goats, and (as you see above), we visited an owl cafe.
That's our Japan experience! If you have recommendations for other readers, please leave them in the comments!
The Best Things We Ate in Japan, Part 2: Yakitori, Oysters, Wagyu and More Pastries Than You Can Possibly Count