Tag Archives: Japan

Kinkakuji Temple and Arashiyama Bamboo Grove Kyoto

June 3, 2017

Today, we wake up very early in the morning (~5 AM) for our second visit to the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. Honestly, I wasn’t too happy about waking up this early but what a difference timing makes. The shrine just felt like a different world without the crowds. It was peaceful and waking up early was well worth the visit.  Highly recommend that for anyone visiting the shrine. This time around, we manage to walk through part of the ~32000 torii gates that lay the path up to the main shrine. We don’t quite hike up all the way due to time constraints but do make it through 60-70% of the hike. We are sure to take advantage of the low crowds and take a thousand pictures (Well maybe not that many but you get the gist…).

 

After enjoying the shrine for couple of hours, we take the train back to the hotel. We grab breakfast at the hotel and head back to our room to shower and pack. We leave our luggage at the front desk, check out, and head back to the train station for a long ride to Arashiyama – the famed bamboo grove of Kyoto. The area is filled with temples, gardens, and shrines but the star attraction is the bamboo grove. The bamboo grove is rather expansive, soothing to the eyes and just magnificent. It also makes up for a different type of experience in Kyoto, which otherwise is very much visiting the temples and shrines.

 

Next, we decide to take a bus to the Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion), one of Japan’s best known and popular zen temples. The temple is covered in gold leaf and shimmers in front of a pond, aptly named the Kyoto-Chi (Mirror Pond). The temple built in the late 1300s was burned down in 1950 by a disgruntled priest and was later rebuilt by 1955.

 

By the time we have enjoyed walking around the temple complex, we have built up an appetite and are ready for lunch. Having eaten mostly ramen for the last week or so, we are ready for some Indian food. Don’t get me wrong, we love ramen but just needed a break from it. We very conveniently find an Indian restaurant called Ganesha nearby. The food at the restaurant is amazing and probably the best Indian food we have had thus far on the trip. After the food coma, we take a bus to the Toji temple. The pagoda which literally means East Temple was founded at the beginning of the Heian period and is the highest pagoda in Japan. At the temple complex, we also see large buddha idols, which we hadn’t seen in many of the temples thus far.

 

After visiting the temple, we walk back to the hotel, pick up our luggage and head to the train station for our train to Osaka. I think it is safe to say that Kyoto was probably our favorite city in Japan and we were very much sad to be leaving it (Japan in general actually). Osaka is only a 30 minute train ride from Kyoto and there are several trains servicing Kyoto and Osaka. We therefore just buy our tickets at the station. After a quick ride, we walk to our hotel which is conveniently located close to the train station. We decide to stay at the Westin since this is our last night in Japan. Our platinum status with Starwood helps us get a swanky suite at the hotel. To put things into perspective, our room in Osaka is 10 times bigger than the one in Tokyo (no exaggeration). This also speaks to the space crunch in Tokyo. We are very excited with the change and decide to enjoy the hotel lounge since it is already quite late to explore the city. The lounge is amazing with great views of the Osaka skyline.

 

We enjoy few drinks (may be a little too many) and hors d’oeuvre before calling it a night. We initially had plans of dining in the city but since Akshita twisted her ankle (yet again lol), we just order dominos and call it a night. PS – ordering dominos in Japanese is not a fun experience but we somehow did manage to order the correct food.

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Exploring Kyoto – the city of temples and shrines

June 2, 2017

We wake up bright and early to explore the city of temples and shrines. While Akshita is getting ready, I finish some deliverables for work, delaying us by few minutes from our planned departure. We quickly grab free breakfast at the hotel and head towards the Kyoto train station across the street. Stop 1: Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine – the head of shrine of the god Inari. The shrine sits at the base of mount Inari and includes trails of thousands of scarlet-colored shrine gates (torii) that lead 2.5 miles up the mountain to the main Inari shrine. Inari is the god of rice, but since merchants have traditionally worshiped Inari as the patron of business, each Torii has been donated by a Japanese business. By the time we reach the shrine, it is super crowded and impossible to take pictures without people in the background. Akshita isn’t too happy about it and obviously I am blamed for the late departure in the morning. So typical haha…After enjoying the shrine for a little bit, we both agree that it would be best to visit the shrine again early tomorrow morning to enjoy it in its prime without the crowds. We take the train back to the hotel to quickly change as Akshita needs to change her shoes (diva :)).

 

Next, we head across the street to the bus terminal to take a Raku bus to Nanzenji Temple. The Raku bus is aimed towards tourists visiting Kyoto and has three loops that cover various sightseeing spots throughout the city. Note: this is NOT the hop on hop off bus. The Nanzenji Temple is one of the most important Zen temples in all of Japan. The temple comprises of many sub-temples and spans across a large area. The history of the temple dates back to the 13th century when Emperor Kameyama built his retirement villa at the temple’s current location and later converted it into a Zen temple. The temple has a lot to offer from impressive gates to gardens and expansive halls to walkways. The San-mon Gate in particular offers a great view of the temple complex and parts of the city from an elevated viewing area. After spending some time at the temple, we walk around the neighborhood and explore local shops and vendors. We stumble upon a little shop and buy a traditional sake set.

Nanzenji Temple_2
Nanzenji Temple Entrance

 

Next, we travel to the Ginkakuji-Mae Temple (Silver Pavilion), the brother temple to the famous Kinkaji-Temple (Golden Pavilion). The temple, situated in the Higashiyama’s mountain range was originally constructed as a mountain villa for military commanders. Despite the name, the temple is not actually decorated with silver. It is believed that the name arose as a nickname to contrast it with the Golden Pavilion. When visiting the temple, you are greeted by elegant gardens and come across many ponds, trees, sand sculptures, and ponds that truly display the essence of a Japanese garden. You can also enjoy views of the city from the elevated sections of the temple. The temple is truly majestic and serene to say the least.

 

By the time we have explored the temple, we are ready for some lunch and decide to try out one of the restaurants close to the temple. Akshita chooses the wild vegetable sansei ramen whereas I get the fried tofu ramen. The ramen was average for our liking but the lunch did make up for an interesting experience. Mid-way through the lunch, Akshita complains about a tingly sensation in her mouth and lips, something she has never experienced before. It was almost uneasy and she couldn’t eat her meal any more. I try her dish as well and experience the same sensation. After some research we find out that the sensation is a result of the sansho pepper that Akshita added to introduce flavor to her rather bland ramen. I guess that didn’t quite work out as expected but we did get to try a new type of pepper. To make up for the average lunch, we try some green tea and vanilla ice-cream right after.

 

After having enjoyed some ice cream, we take another Raku bus to the Heian Shrine, a shrine that was built to mark the 1100th anniversary of the capital’s foundation in Kyoto. A giant Torii gate marks the approach to the shrine and we make sure to take a lot of pictures with the giant structure. Having walked a lot today, we decide to head back to the hotel for a quick siesta.

 

Now recharged, we head back to the bus station and hop on to a bus heading towards Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district and home to a high concentration of traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. Geishas are traditionally entertainers who are trained in art, music, and dancing. The young maiko follows her mentor and “older sister” geiko to appointments, shadowing her movements and observing the skill of repartee and reserve with the clients. As a professional entertainer, the geiko’s role is not only to play music and dance, but also to make the customers feel at ease with witty conversation and even join in drinking games as the night progresses. As an amateur, the maiko is not expected to be as charming and amusing, and instead relies on ornate jewelry, rich kimono and young looks to speak for her (source: insidejapantours). We walk around the streets for more than 45 minutes in hopes of catching a glimpse of a geisha but in vain. To be honest, we weren’t expecting to see any based on what we had heard from our friends who had visited recently. Just as we decide to grab dinner at a nearby restaurant around 8:45 PM, we notice a geisha in a cab. At first, we are unsure but are soon convinced once the geisha steps out of the cab with her guest. Though we think of a geisha as an elegant figure with white make-up, red lips, an elaborate hairstyle and even more elaborate kimono, this popular image is actually more typical of a maiko, or trainee geisha. Fully qualified geisha are more likely to dress in subdued colors and wear natural make-up, relying on skill rather than appearance to entertain their clients. Suddenly, we see geishas all around the streets. Though hard to spot, we are lucky to see 8-10 geishas during our visit. Not sure what our fascination with geishas is but we were super excited to see them. Perhaps it was the feeling of acting like paparazzi and running around streets to catch a glimpse of them?

 

After taking several pictures of the geishas from a distance (to respect their privacy), we grab some amazing Indian food at the Maharaja restaurant in Gion, take the bus back to the hotel and call it a night.

Exploring Tokyo

May 29, 2017

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.

Tokyo Metropolitan
View from Tokyo Metropolitan Building

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!!).

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.

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 to  Nagi 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

We walk back to the hotel and call it a night after having walked 10 miles!

Konnichiwa Japan!

May 27 – 28, 2017

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.

United Polaris - Enjoying all alone!

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.

Narita Express - Tokyo Arrival

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.

Around 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.

East Asia Adventures

April 15, 2017

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.

Japan / South Korea 2017 Itinerary