Tokyo, Japan

IMG_4322My final stop after staying in Kyoto was Tokyo. I again used the Shinkansen to reach Tokyo with my Japan Rail Pass. The train ride between Kyoto and Tokyo takes a couple hours through the country side and also passes Mt. Fuji.

During my time in Tokyo I stayed in the Shinjuku area. Shinjuku is home to the busiest railway station in the world. Surrounding the station you’ll find a variety of entertainment, shopping, restaurants, and businesses. A lot of the major Japanese department stores and camera shops are in the Shinjuku area. I had a lot of fun walking through some of the tech stores looking at camera equipment.

One thing I wanted to do in Tokyo was visit a cat café. Japan is well known for cat cafes and has really embraced cat culture. I visited Cat Café Calico Shinjuku since I could easily walk from my hotel. I’d never been to a cat café before, so I really didn’t know what to expect. This café wasn’t really a cafe, more just a large play room with cats. They sell food and beverage for consumption, but I passed once in the café.

Overall the cat café was an interesting experience but I wasn’t overly impressed. The cats were cute and most of them nice. You could buy food to feed the cats, which is the only time any cat will probably show interest. Without food the cats pretty much ignored most visitors. The cat café was a cute experience, but honestly I would try a different location next time.

While in Tokyo I also made sure to go on a food tour. I went with Ninja Food Tour on the Best of Izakaya tour. This tour was an introduction to Japanese pub food culture in Shinjuku. It was a really great food tour and introduced me to a variety of foods in Tokyo.

On the tour we went to 4 different eateries, including both a chicken and seafood restaurant. My favorite restaurant was the seafood restaurant where we tried 6 different dishes of food, included fresh fatty tuna. The tuna was probably some of the best I’ve tried to date. The tour wasn’t fast paced which made it nice to experience Shinjuku.

While on the tour I met two guys from Norway who suggested a steak restaurant to try in the area called Ikuta. The next day I decided to give the restaurant a try since I was looking to try Kobe beef. I’m glad they recommended it because the food was fantastic. The staff were friendly and helpful with explaining the menu.

Since I was eating on my own, I had to order all my plates individually instead of their meal options. For one person my meal cost around $100 USD. I ordered two different plates of Kobe beef, a salad, and a beer. Additionally, the restaurant provided a complimentary amuse bouche to start with. The meat was tender and flavorful, and truly was some of the best beef I’ve tried. For the quality level of the food, I think the price for the meal was worth it.

The last major point of interest for my trip to Tokyo was the Robot Restaurant. First off this isn’t really a restaurant, it is a theatrical show! There is dancing, fake robots, singing, crazy costumes, and lights.  I’d been wanting to go since I first saw Anthony Bourdain visited on his tv show years ago. It’s become really popular with tourists since then and is extremely gimmicky.

The show actually was fun to watch, though very loud and bright. This place is comical and definitely is a tourist trap. You see very few local people, if any. The show is weird and something fun to do in the evening. I would though stay away from any food or drink offerings. One tip is to buy your tickets online ahead of time, the price is reduced compared to buying at the ticket window.

Accommodation: Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku

During my time in Tokyo I stayed at the Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku. I had found the hotel through a couple recommendations on travel blogs. Overall, I thought the hotel itself was average. Nothing really jumped out at me about the property other than the location.

The location of the hotel was excellent though. The property is within walking distance from the station and hundreds of nearby restaurants and shops. Another great bonus with the location was the airport limousine. The airport limousine drops off and picks up directly at the hotel. This was really convenient the day I left Tokyo.

Kyoto, Japan

IMG_3188From Osaka I headed to Kyoto by Shinkansen. Shinkansen is Japan’s high-speed train system connecting most of the country. I found transportation in Japan to be easy to use and to navigate. During my time in Kyoto I utilized the Japan Rail Pass. The Japan Rail Pass gave me access to JR trains and transportation, which were convenient to most tourist sites in Kyoto.

My first day in Kyoto I tried to visit a sake brewery, which unfortunately wasn’t open at the time. From there I headed to Nishiki Market, a long narrow shopping street filled with small restaurants and shops. There were over 100 stalls in the market selling items related to food or cooking. One of my favorite shops I looked at was a knife store. The knives were all handmade in Japan, though I passed since I was using a carry-on for my trip.

The next day I decided to head to Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. This was one of the few Sake experiences I could find in Kyoto that was actually open to the public. One thing Kyoto could do is embrace Sake tourism, especially in providing more education.

The entry fee to Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum was only 300 Yen. The ticket gave me entry, a free souvenir Sake bottle (with Sake), and a Sake tasting. The museum is self-guided and smaller, though it provides a lot of information about how Sake is produced and the history of Sake in Japan.

From the museum I next headed to Nijo Castle. Nijo Castle is a designated World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The castle was the residence of shogun Tokugawa Ieyas. The complex dates back to the early 1600s. Some of the buildings have been rebuilt due to damage from fires and storms.

The castle is surrounded by two moats, which provided protection to the palace and gardens. The complex at Nijo Castle is impressive. Much of the gardens are covered in cherry and plum trees. Nijo Castle is probably a great site to visit later in spring when the trees blossom.

On my final day in Kyoto I went to Fushimi-Inari. This shrine is dedicated to Inari (Shinto god of rice) and is considered the most important shrine to Inari. You’ll find many fox statues across the shrine, which are thought to be messengers for Inari. The earliest known structure at Fushimi-Inari predates Kyoto becoming the capital of Japan in 794.

In my opinion, Fushimi-Inari is probably the most recognized shrine in Japan due to the thousands of torii gates. The torii gates span a network of trails, which lead to the forest of Mount Inari. The further you walk along the trail, the less visitors you’ll encounter. The hike can take about 2 to 3 hours, but you can turn back before reaching the summit. Along the hike you’ll encounter small shrines and miniature torii gates.

My huge mistake with visiting Fushimi-Inari was not getting up early enough. I arrived about 10:00 AM and the site was filled with tourists. If visiting Fushimi-Inari, I highly recommend visiting the shrine around 8:00 AM. This will help with avoiding the main crowds.

In general, I found Kyoto to be packed with tourists. Part of the reason may have been due to Chinese New Year. I guestimate around 60% of the tourists I encountered in Kyoto were from China. If you travel in Asia during the beginning of the year, just be aware Chinese New Year may increase the number of tourists traveling.

Accommodation: Ibis Styles Kyoto Station

During my time in Kyoto I stayed at the Ibis Styles Kyoto Station. The hotel is located right across the street from Kyoto Station, which made it convenient to reach local transportation.

Hotel RoomBesides the location of the hotel, the price was good! Kyoto hotels are fairly expensive, yet Ibis was budget friendly and modern feeling. This was my first time staying at an Ibis property and I wouldn’t shy away from their properties in the future.

When arriving at the hotel, I was able to check-in a few hours early and was even given an upgrade. The room was small but easy to move around. The room even included a mini-refrigerator. The thing I liked the most about the property was the laundry room on the second floor. This was easy and convenient, plus made it nice not having to send out laundry to an expensive service.

 

Osaka, Japan

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Last year I decided to visit Japan for two weeks over Chinese New Year. I started my trip by spending 3 days in Osaka before heading to Kyoto. Osaka was a city I found easy to navigate and a great introduction to Japan.

The weather during the beginning of my trip was not the most cooperative. It ended up raining my first 2 days Osaka. I decided to check out the various shopping and food areas since most were covered or easy to dash between. One area I walked around was Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shopping Street. This street is well known for shops that sell kitchen and cooking utensils.

Besides exploring the shopping areas, I decided to take a food tour with Drink Osaka. This ended up being my favorite food tour in Japan, and possibly my favorite food tour in Asia. My tour ended up being just the guide (Rodney) and myself. Luckily, Drink Osaka didn’t cancel my tour since no one else booked for the evening I was there!

The tour explored the Dotonbori area of Osaka, which is home to hundreds and hundreds of bars and restaurants. I’ve never seen so many restaurants and bars in one area. Dotonobori is busy with locals and tourists trying the various foods and bars. During my tour I tried kushikatsu, okonomiyaki, and takoyaki. We also stopped at two local bars to sample sake and Japanese whisky.

Rodney then took me to a restaurant not included on the tour, where I had the opportunity to purchase and try fugu. Fugu (blowfish) is a poisonous fish and that should only be prepared by certified chefs. The restaurant had less than 10 seats and somewhere I never would have found on my own. Supposedly Jay-Z visited the same restaurant the year before during his visit to Osaka.

I tried fugu two different way. One version was roasted fugu in warm sake, known as Hirezake. The other was fugu served with soy sauce. I had the chance to try handmade tofu, which was some of the best tofu I’ve tried.

 

Accommodation: ANA Crowne Plaza Osaka

IMG_2906During my time in Osaka I stayed at the ANA Crowne Plaza Osaka. The hotel is located in downtown Osaka and overlooks the nearby Dojima River and highway. There are multiple subway stations nearby and a free shuttle to Osaka Station.

The ANA Crowne Plaza Osaka was modern and recently updated before my stay. Upon check-in I was upgraded to a queen room with a view due to my IHG status. The room was the largest and most spacious I encountered during my trip to Japan. There was even a small sitting area that overlooked the Dojima River and highway. The only downside was the noise late one night from the nearby highway. The highway is popular with the infamous street racing that takes place in Osaka.

 

Visiting the DMZ and JSA

IMG_1567When visiting Seoul last October, the top place on my list to visit was the Joint Security Area (JSA) at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The Panmunjom area of the JSA is where South Korean and North Korean military forces basically stand face-to-face. This is a surreal experience and one I am glad I was able to see.

The only way to visit the JSA is through an authorized tour company. I ended up going with Koridoor Tours since it was recommended by the USO. Koridoor is also only one of a few companies that offers tours to the JSA. Koridoor offered a few DMZ tour options but I went with the only option to the visit JSA (Full-day DMZ/JSA tour).

On the day of the tour all participants were required to arrive to the Koridoor tour office early for identification verification. You have to show your passport (or military ID) for entry into the JSA. Once everyone was verified we all filled up the bus to head to the DMZ.

My tour started with a visit to the JSA. When we arrived to Camp Bonifas are passports were verified by a military escort. The tour was then directed to the JSA Visitor Center for a 20-minute briefing by another military escort. The briefing explained the history between the North and South, plus expected behavior of visitors with a lot of focus on not defecting to North Korea.

Once the briefing was over the tour moved to a military bus for the JSA visit. One thing to be aware of, you are required to leave all purses and bags on the Koridoor bus for the JSA portion of the tour. The bus ride around the JSA was relatively short (about 30 minutes). Even shorter was the time at the Panmunjom (literally around 10 to 15 minutes).

At the Panmunjom you actually are able to enter the famous blue buildings where discussions are held between South Korea and North Korea. Inside the building you are able to cross the Military Demarcation Line where you can stand in North Korea (for about 5 minutes).

The feeling at the Panmunjom is very tense. South Korean soldiers are standing guard watching the North Korean soldiers (and vice-versa). Interestingly there were very few North Koreans soldiers standing guard the day I visited. This was commented on by others on the tour who had previously been to the JSA.

After the JSA tour we were taken back to Camp Bonifas for a short break before heading out on the rest of the tour with Koridoor. Of course there is a gift shop where I bought a JSA t-shirt and North Korean currency. Funny enough, every stop of the tour had a gift shop.

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Section of the Berlin Wall at the DMZ

From the JSA we then visited the Dorasan Station. Dorasan Station is the most northern train station in South Korea and is less than 1000m from the boundary of the DMZ. The station was opened in hopes of a reconciliation between both North and South Korea. There is hope the station will one day connect both countries, and connect South Korea to railways in Russia (and beyond!).

One compliant I have with this part of the tour is we had to pay an additional 1,000KRW in cash to go out on the platform. As much as that irritated me, it was fascinating to go out onto the platform because you could hear the propaganda music being played from North Korea towards the South. This was crazy to hear!

Next, we moved on to a Korean Restaurant at the DMZ for lunch. Lunch is not included in the tour and for good reason. The food at the restaurant is absolutely disgusting. The lunch I purchased at the DMZ was the worst meal I had in South Korea and literally resembled cafeteria food. Many people recommend online to bring your own food, and I wish I had listened to this suggestion.

After lunch we headed to Dora Observatory. The Dora Observatory is on the South Korean side of the DMZ. If you visit on a clear day you’ll have great views of the DMZ, South Korea, and even parts of North Korea. One thing you can kind of see from the observatory is a North Korean propaganda village, where no one actually lives. It was a little overcast on the day I visited, so you couldn’t make out much of North Korea.

The last place we visited was the DMZ Theater and the Third Infiltration Tunnel. The tunnel was discovered in 1978 and was created by North Korea to surprise attack Seoul. The tunnel was considered an act of aggression from North Korea by the UN and has since been sealed off. Interestingly this is one of four tunnels discovered so far along the DMZ. It is estimated there are up to 20 more hidden tunnels along the border.

To be completely honest, I could have easily skipped this part of the tour. The DMZ Theater played the most American and South Korean propaganda video I have ever seen and heard. It actually was a tad uncomfortable watching this video (and I was not the only person who felt this way). I also ended up skipping the Third Infiltration Tunnel because it is supposed to be very claustrophobic with a steep incline. A few soldiers who were on the tour complained about the tunnel afterwards being a PTSD trigger and being difficult to walk.

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Overall the Koridoor tour to the JSA and DMZ was a great experience. There were a few downsides to the tour, but the experience at the JSA is something I will always remember. Visiting the JSA and DMZ was a fascinating experience! I’m so glad I was able to visit here, especially with the current political climate.

Things to Note for visiting the JSA

  1. You need either a Military ID or Passport to go on the tour. Some Passports may be restricted from visiting the JSA.
  2. There is a dress code to the JSA (though it was not fully enforced on my tour).
  3. Currently tours are being restrictedand not visiting the Bridge of No Return and Point of Ax Murder. My tour last October missed these locations.
  4. This is a tour that can’t be booked at the last minute since all visitor information is submitted to the JSA in advance.
  5. Tours can be cancelled without much notice if there is an official meeting or ceremony being held at the JSA. Also, this means there is no refund for missing the JSA.