We wake up early to walk around and take in the streets of Hakone in the early morning light. After we are back at the Ryokan, we decide to soak in the onsen one last time before heading over to the Hakone-Yumoto station. Given that we have the whole day to explore Hakone, we drop our luggage in lockers at the station. Next, we grab a quick bite at one of the close by pastry shops and catch the bus to Lake Ashi. Since we bought the Hakone free pass the night before, this made everything easier and faster. After a 45 minute bus ride through the lush forests of Hakone, we arrive at Lake Ashi. We are greeted by several Inari shrines and a beautiful lake.
Massive Inari in Hakone
Inari – Hakone
Inari – Hakone
On the lake we see a traditional Japanese boat that looks like a pirate ship to us. We jump aboard the ship and the entire ride we are in search of Mt. Fuji, which can supposedly be seen on a clear day. We however are not so lucky. Fortunately, we have the beautiful Lake Ashi. From there we took another bus to get to the top of the mountain in the Owakudani area, an active volcanic valley. There is an option for a ropeway up, however it is out of service.
Pirate Boat – Lake Ashi
Pirate Boat – Lake Ashi
Once we get to the top, we have worked up an appetite. Lucky for us there is a nearby shop that is attracting crowds of people. The shop is selling black eggs, commonly known as Kuro-Tamago by locals. The eggs acquire their color from the water they are boiled in which contains sulfur and iron. The locals believe that the eggs add years to your life span and bestow luck on the person eating them. Although the eggs look very exotic, they taste like normal hard boiled eggs. Still the novelty is enough and it makes for a great snack. We also have some ice cream before we head on the ropeway to Sounzan. Sadly we still are not able to grab a glimpse of Mt. Fuji, probably our last hope to do so. From there we take a cable car to Kowakidani and hike to the Chisuji Falls.
Eating ice cream in Owakudani
Trying the Kuro Tamago – black egg
After a nice walk we head back to the main center of Hakone and walk around the town for a bit. We grab a nice warm bowl of Ramen and feel content with our short but relaxing trip to Hakone. We make our way back to the Hakone- Yumoto station, grab our bags and buy tickets on the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. Sanchit is charged up and acting like a little enthusiastic kid as he watches the bullet trains go by. Apparently, he had always wanted to travel in the Shinkansen and he just can’t curb his enthusiasm. The train ride is smooth and speaks to the engineering wonders mankind has achieved. After a 3 hour ride, we arrive in Kyoto.
Shinkansen Bullet Train
Kyoto Train Station
We walk over to our hotel, the Ibis Styles Kyoto Station, which is conveniently located right across from the station. After our long day, we kick back, order some Dominos and watch TV to end our day.
We set out early to see the famed Tsukiji fish market. Being vegetarian, I had my apprehensions about visiting an all fish market. We were told by friends who had visited Tokyo that this was an attraction worth going to. We had originally planned to attend the tuna auction however we learned that we had inadequate planning. In order to go to the auction, you must find a hotel close to the fish market as public transportation doesn’t operate during those hours and cab/ubers are costly in Tokyo. Nevertheless we were in Tokyo so we at least wanted to see what the hype was about. We arrived bright and early around 7am to the fish market only to find out it was only open to private buyers until 10am. We decide to use this time to find some breakfast in this cute mom and pop shop with literally 5 seats. After filling up on some breakfast sandwiches, we stroll around some of the shops on the outskirts of the market and pick up some matcha.
Market close to Tsukiji Market
Long line outside Tsukiji Market for fresh breakfast
Akshita trying Daifuku
We also try some Daifuku, a glutinous rice cake stuffed with sweet filling, most commonly anko, sweetened red bean paste made from azuki beans. As we had some time to kill, we find the Tsukiji Hongwanji Buddhist temple nearby and pop inside to explore. After sitting for a bit, we head back over to the Tsukiji fish market that is now open to the public. As we arrive, we realize many of the vendors are already packing up, clearly these people start and end early. Many of the vendors still have some fish available and it was truly a sight to see. We see beautifully colored octopus, eels (live and dead), small and large fish, sea urchins. We even catch one of the vendors cutting up a large tuna. Walking through the market, its easy to see the fascination and I can only imagine what it is like in its true glory.
Tsukiji Hongwanji Buddhist Temple
Fresh fish at Tsukiji Market
Vendors cutting fresh tuna
Fresh fish at Tsukiji Market
We explore the fish market for a bit more and head back to Shinjuku station to pack up our things. After checking out of our hotel, we walk over to the main Shinjuku station stopping first at the Shinjuku Toho building where a large Godzilla figure pops out between 12 PM – 8 PM at the top of the hour. I had been planning this as something to see however was never able to fit it in. By chance we happen to be walking through Shinjuku at the right time and place. We reach the Shinjuku station and have a couple minutes for a quick bowl of ramen. We order through the vending machine and join the locals in quickly slurping down our ramen before catching our train to Hakone. I am pretty sure Sanchit had a plate of fried pork (he had tried to order chicken) along with his ramen. He claims it was one of the best meals he had in Japan and the meat simply melted in your mouth.
Godzilla at the Tokyo Toho Building
Vending Machine at the Shinjuku Station restaurant
Ramen and fried pork
As usual we are running late and barely make it to the Odakyu station where we quickly grab tickets on the Romance car to Hakone, a serene little town about 100 kilometers outside of Tokyo. The journey is short (about an hour and a half) but the ride is beautiful as we zoom past the country side. We are told that we may be able to catch a glimpse of the elusive mount Fuji however we aren’t lucky to see it. I guess we have an excuse to come back to Japan. After a short journey, we arrive in Hakone and decide to obtain a Hakone free pass to maximize our time in Hakone. The Hakone free pass is a great deal and covers all local buses, trains, cable cars, ropeways, and the cruise. The pass even includes the train ride to the Odawara station, which is where you can hop onto the Shinkansen bullet train to travel to Kyoto and other parts of Japan. Note: There is no Shinkansen bullet train service from Hakone.
Odakyu Romance Car
View from the Hakone train station
We catch a bus to our Ryokan, Yojokan Haru No Hikari and are greeted by a quaint but beautiful lodge. The hotel concierge gives us a tour of the Ryokan and shows us the 2 different onsens and the restaurant. Dinners are typically included in the Ryokans for a fee and are highly recommended if you are looking for the traditional Japanese experience. We get changed into our traditional Japanese garb called the Yukata and head down for the dinner. The ryokan we chose caters to vegan and vegetarians (highly recommend the Ryokan btw, especially if you are a vegetarian). The dinner was an amazing experience with a full 7 course meal served with warm sesame tea. Suddenly, we wished we had stayed in Hakone for 2 nights to enjoy the dinner again.
Yojokan Haru No Hikari Ryokan
Onsen at the Ryokan
Dressed in our Yukatas for the dinner
Lavish dinner at the Ryokan
Dinner at the Ryokan
Since the dinner is early in the night, we head over to the onsen after dinner to wash away the day’s fatigue and relax in the hot spring water. Next, we walk outside in the beautiful weather and stop at a small local convenience store to pick up some local snacks and sake for the night. We call it a night after enjoying some sake.
We start out the day at Momi and Toni’s for some breakfast crepes. After enjoying a light breakfast we head over to the Imperial Palace. The Imperial palace houses the emperor of Japan and has several large gardens surrounding it. Although only part of the actual castle remains, the Edo Castle, the palace gardens are quite expansive. While strolling the palace’s gardens, we stumbled across a summer concert series featuring a full Japanese Orchestra/band. We sit under the shade of a nearby tree and enjoy the music.
Akshita at Imperial Palace
After strolling through the gardens and taking pictures of the castle, we make our way over to Hamarikyu gardens. Here we enjoy a nice stroll through the gardens. We come across a preserved 300 year old pine. We stop for a cherry blossom ice cream puff and sit on a nearby bench. We witness a Japanese couples’ wedding photoshoot. As we stroll down the garden we arrive at the Nakajima no Ochaya tea house and enjoy a cup of piping hot Macha with Wagashi (translates to Japanese sweets – in this case sweet yam dumpling). The tea house is overlooking a pond and we peacefully drink our Macha and enjoy the nice breeze.
Cherry Blossom Ice Cream Puff
Akshita eating the cherry blossom ice cream puff
Nakajima No Ochaya Tea House
Hamarikyu Gardens Pond
Nakajima No Ochaya Tea House
After all the walking, we have worked up an appetite. We choose T’s Tan Tan in the Tokyo Station which we hear about from our friend Chirag (thanks Chiru!!) and has also been suggested online to offer tasty vegan ramen. The entire menu features several varieties of all vegan ramen. Going from struggling to find vegetarian food to having an abundance of choices made our decision tough. The ramen was amazing, and we both choose sobu noodles this time which we both realize we prefer over the thicker udon noodles. We both add a lot of hot sauce to our ramen which led me to say “if its not red its not fun” which Sanchit thought was quite amusing.
T’s TanTan Vegetarian Ramen
T’s TanTan Vegetarian Ramen
T’s TanTan Menu
After thoroughly enjoying our lunch, we attempt to book our next days travel for Hakone since we are at the Shibuya station. We decide to buy our ticket the following day leaving us with more flexible travel plans. We head over to our hotel to freshen up. After resting for a bit, we find a nearby Sake market in Shinjuku called Kurand Sake Market.
The Kurand Sake market is actually a chain with several locations, but they offer all you can drink sake tasting for 3000 yen. I had seen this on Trip advisor and both of us wanted to try sake. The Atmosphere in the market quickly picks up and most tables are filled with young college aged people. The market allows you to bring food thus we notice many people bring their dinner while enjoying all you can drink Sake. As tempting as it was to continue drinking, after trying several types of Sake, we make our way around the Shinjuku area looking for Sushi.
We pick sushi as we have mainly been eating Ramen for most of our meals and are looking for a change. We pick a restaurant called Zanmai as they offered veggie sushi as well. Sanchit was able to try octopus, tuna, and salmon while I opted for some pickled veggie sushi. The sushi was good but we weren’t too impressed. We realize that this is likely due to the Caliber of the restaurant as later on the trip we do see some better looking sushi places. Also we realize that sushi isn’t actually that big in Tokyo and many people eat Ramen or sashimi, or probably the freshest catch from the fish market.
Tuna, Octopus, Salmon, and Squid sushi
We walk back to the hotel, pack and get ready for bed as we have plans to see the Tsukiji fish market in the morning and hop on a train to Hakone after that.
We wake up early in the morning (7 AM) to kickoff our first full day in Tokyo. Before venturing out, we stop by the front desk at the hotel to get a map of the metro. Turns out there are multiple companies that operate railways within the city of Tokyo. There is the JR Line, the more popular train service among tourists since it offers 7, 14, or 21 day passes for unlimited travel within Japan. The JR railway network is great for travel between cities in Japan but the train stations for local travel within Tokyo are quite spread out. Then there is the Tokyo Metro subway which is operated by a different company that offers great connectivity within Tokyo. The Metro network has a lot more lines and stops within the city of Tokyo. There are also other companies that operate other railway lines such as Toei line and Obakyu line. Having finally learned at a high level about the train system in Tokyo, we decide to go with the Tokyo Metro day pass, especially since we did not buy the JR Rail pass and were not bound by it.
First, we head out to the Tokyo Metropolitan building to catch a view of the Tokyo sky line. The Tokyo metropolitan building allows visitors to view the Tokyo from above for free which explains why we see many tourists and also locals. We see a view that apparently on a very clear day you are able to see the infamous mount Fuji. We however are not lucky enough to catch a glimpse but we do see an example which outlines where we would see it.
After the Tokyo Metropolitan building we head over to the Meiji Shrine. However a few wrong turns and a long walk around Yoyogi park, we arrive at Takeshita Dori which is the heart of Harajuku and a destination we were planning to see at a later time. We decide to explore this street before seeing the Meiji shrine. The street is crowded and we see several groups of girls. There are many lines formed outside of various shops of unique/specialty food items. We see fancy crepe shops and the line for rainbow cotton candy shop contains atleast 20+ people. We aren’t able to see any Harajuku girls but we do see several shops selling costumes they would typically wear. Side note: Harajuku girls are backup dancer that were first featured in stage shows and music videos for Gwen Stefani. These girls can often be seen in the Harajuku district wearing costumes. In addition to many confectionary shops we also note that most streets are equipped with vending machines selling snacks, coffee, beer and even liquor. In general, we notice that you can find vending machines on every street of Japan (and that is not an exaggeration!!).
Cool cartoon socks at Takeshita Dori area
Crepes on display at Takeshita Dori
Takeshita Dori Area
Vending Machines everywhere
Crepe shop in Takeshita Dori area
We finally make our way over to the Yoyogi park along a shaded path leading to the Meiji Shrine. Unfortunately the shrine is under construction so we are not able to see it in its full glory.
Meiji Shrine Entrance
Meiji Shrine Entrance
Cleaning hands before entering the shrine area
Sake Barrels at Meiji Shrine
We next head over to the Shibuya crossing which is one of the busiest crossings in the world. Here, over 6 different pedestrian crossings merge which gives us an idea of just how populated Tokyo really is. It is estimated that over 2500 pedestrians cross the crossing every time the signal changes. I do want to stop for a second to comment on how efficient the city is despite its population. Even on the escalators, people line up on the left side to allow other passengers to walk up on the right side. The streets are impeccably clean despite no visible trash cans in site. After marveling at the Shibuya crossing and even getting a distant view from the Shibuya station, we make our way over toNagi Shokudo, a vegan restaurant (after a great deal of searching). We take our shoes off and enjoy a vegan meal Japanese style. We try this delicious plum sake that tasted like sweet plum juice. After resting our feet and having refueled, we head over to the Akihabara electronic district. This is where locals and visitors come to buy “cheap” Japanese electronics. I say cheap in quotations because prices seemed similar if not pricier than what we find in the states. Regardless, it was still an experience to see all the variety offered here. The Yodobashi Akiba Store contained 9 floors of electronics. We only made it to the first three floors but I start to see that people likely come to these stores for the variety they offer. For example, there were 10+ lanes of iPhone 7 cases, several lanes of cannon cameras and lens, etc.
Plastic food replicas outside every restaurant in Japan
Yodobashi Akiba store
A small section of one of the floors at Yodobashi Akiba
Next, we hop on the metro and head over to the Kaminarimon gate which houses a 220 pound Japanese lantern which also is the gateway to the Nakamise street.
Here we try iced green tea which is incredibly refreshing after having walked over 5 miles. We also try this spicy rice cracker which went along great with our cold beverage.
Women in Kimonos on Nakemisa Street
Spicy rice cracker at Nakemisa Street
Ice green tea shop on Nakemisa Street
We walk along browsing shops of souvenirs and make our way over to the Hozomon gate which leads to the Sensoji temple and the Sensoji temple pagoda. We snap several photos and even attempt several jumping pictures.
Sensoji Temple 3
Sensoji Temple and Pagoda
Sensoji Temple 2
Sensoji Temple 1
Finally we head over to the last attraction for the day, the Tokyo Skytree. After making our way up 350 meters via elevator, we arrive at a 360 degree view of Tokyo city. The views are amazing but night views are truly majestic as the whole city comes to life and lights up. Here you can truly take in how expansive Tokyo city is. Sadly, we still aren’t able to catch a view of Mount Fuji.
Outside Tokyo SkyTree
Sunset view from Tokyo Skytree
After leaving the Skytree, we have worked up quite an appetite. We quickly find Shinjuku Gyoen ramen ouka which offers veggie ramen and Halal Ramen. The ramen is flavorful, spicy and very satisfying. Mine comes with a creamy tofu paste and a fire roasted rice cake. Sanchit gets ramen that is slightly closer to the traditional ramen; his ramen comprises of fish broth, chicken, and soba noodles. One type of ramen that we find readily available is the Tonkotsu Ramen, which is apparently made out of pig marrow bones.
Halal Chicken Ramen
We walk back to the hotel and call it a night after having walked 10 miles!
Some people never learn from previous experiences. I guess Akshita and I are those people. One would think that after the missed flight during our trip to Colombia (even though that was a weather related issue “mostly”) we would be well prepared this time around. Umm nope, after a long day of work we both pass out at around 11:30 PM the night before our trip without packing our stuff. Luckily we wake up at 5:30 AM and scramble around the apartment for the next 3 hours to pack our stuff for the 2 week trip to Japan and South Korea. This time around we decide to go with backpacks instead of carry-ons as we didn’t want to deal with roller bags on trains and public transit. Once all packed, we take care of some last minute things in the apartment and head out for LAX airport. Once at the airport we check in and enjoy the United Airlines lounge before heading to our gate for boarding. Turns out one of us gets the upgrade courtesy of United Airlines. Since this is Akshita’s first time, I insist that she sit up front and enjoy the experience.
After a long 12 hour flight, we finally arrive in Tokyo’s Narita airport. After immigration and customs, we quickly grab our MiFi (pocket Wi-Fi) and buy train tickets to Shinjuku station, the area where our hotel is located. Narita is more than 50 kms from central Tokyo and the train ride costing about $30/person takes a little more than an hour. In comparison, a cab ride from Narita airport to the city can cost one close to $300. We quickly find out that cabs are very expensive in Tokyo and trains are the most cost effective way to commute.
Note on trains in Japan: “Green Car” refers to business class and typically costs about 1.5-2 times more than a regular ticket. “We” (meaning Akshita) almost bought green car tickets to the city from the airport since we were unaware of what that meant. Thanks to some prior research, we had a good sense of how much our travel to the city should cost.
After reaching Shinjuku JR line station, we open our handy-dandy google maps and start walking towards the hotel. While walking, we quickly experience the hustle bustle of the city with shops, restaurants, and people in every direction. The place is very vibrant and we are finally excited about being in Tokyo. We book Hotel Granbell Shinjuku for our 3 night 4 day stay in Tokyo.
Note: Hotels in Japan can get quite pricey. If you are just looking for a place to crash after a long day of sightseeing, I suggest you look for something in the Shinjuku or Shibuya area. These areas are close to metro stops and are well connected to the rest of the city. Hotel rooms in Tokyo are typically very small (similar to NYC) but very well designed. Rooms have everything you need and you can find a decent hotel in the Shinjuku/Shibuya area for about $100-150/night. We are satisfied with our pick of Hotel Granbell Shinjuku.
After a quick shower we walk down to the reception to ask the hotel staff about places to eat. They tell us about the 3 day Hanazono Shrine festival in a nearby area. We head over to the festival area and are amazed by the row of food stalls with vendors selling all sorts of Japanese food (dried/grilled fish, takoyaki (wheat-flour-based ball shaped snack typically filled with minced octopus), ramen, pancake filled with nutella, octopus sticks, etc.). We even see drinks in lit up light bulbs and liquid nitrogen fruit. There isn’t a shortage of cool things to try at this city festival. We walk around the street, try the pancakes and decide that we probably need to find another place that is a little more vegetarian friendly. Tired after a long flight, we settle on Thai food and call it a night.
The last time I had 2 weeks off for vacation was back in 2014 when I traveled with my friends Chirag, Nav, and Nikhil to South America for the 2014 football world cup. It was about time for another one of those. Luckily, both Akshita and I managed to get 2 weeks off this year. The next obvious question – where do we go?? Given the proximity to the west coast, we both agreed that somewhere in Asia would be a great option. After a lot of discussion, we decided on Japan and South Korea.
We will start our trip in Tokyo, Japan. After spending few days in the capital city, we will make our way by train to the mountainous town of Hakone. After a brief stay in Hakone, we will travel to Kyoto and Osaka, our last stops in Japan. Next, we will take a short flight from Osaka and cross international waters to arrive in Busan, South Korea. We will spend 2 nights in Busan before traveling to Jeju Island, commonly termed as “Hawaii of South Korea”. We will end our 2 week trip in South Korea’s vibrant capital city of Seoul.