I SPY: Japan

Sep 16, 2014

TOKYO + KYOTO: Aug 2013

Where have you eaten the best sushi?  You ain't tried the BEST and freshest raw fish till you've been to Japan!  Folks you better believe this is sushi central, and everything else about this country from architecture, etiquette, food, gardens, and presentation is top notch.  But that all comes with a price - it ain't cheap to visit!  After two weeks in Japan our wallet was lighter upon departure, but we gained so much culture (and a few pounds!…*sigh*) it was worth the investment.

1st stop TOKYO:

A big cosmopolitan city.  A city that never sleeps.  Not much different to NYC.  Just a helluva lot cleaner!  It is unbelievable how a big city can be so clean.  It is engrained in the Japanese Culture to clean up after yourself.  Why aren't we New Yorkers this way?  People in Japan don't litter.  You don't even see cigarette butts on the ground and Japanese are heavy smokers!  There are smoking stations set up along the streets and the law abiding citizens conform to order and follow the rules.  SIMPLE.

Even their public bathrooms are super clean which is a rarity in any country except Japan.  As anal as I am it was the 1st time I've allowed my youngest to go to a public bathroom by himself - only in Japan!  Majority of the public restrooms have the fancy loos that have a million buttons and need an instruction manual to know how to operate it to its max potential.  Is that the secret to clean bathrooms?  Nope - only more reason for men to sit on their throne longer!  Japanese just understand its common courtesy if you sprinkle when you tinkle be a sweetie and wipe the seaty!  Listen up NYC - we gotta stop being American slobs!

Lost in translation - the only down I have about this country!  But thats my fault for not speaking their language, not their problem, MINE.  Restaurant name signs and addresses will throw you for a loop.  However, train and subway stations have the signs translated to English which is a blessing so you know your in the right place.  When in doubt hail a cab and they'll drop you at your destination stress free, or keep your hotel concierge Tel# on stand by to be your translator!  A tip from Luxe City Guides.  Thank you Luxe...I didn't have to learn the hard way!


You've heard of the Harajuku Girls right?  Home to eccentric fashion.  Halloween on Steroids!  Fun to walk around area and stare.  Oops sorry my bad - OBSERVE!  Push yourself through Takeshita Dori street a shit show of 'interesting' people, then stroll Harajuku street which is not so crowded and has a bunch of boutiques, and enjoy people watching.

In the geek electronic neighborhood of Akihabara we had a drink at the most bazaar place - a maid cafe.  It was WEIRD.  Or at least for me!  Girls dressed as French maids, serve grown men drinks and food like cafe mochas that require your participation in a little chant, and a sprinkle of magic power, topped by a chocolate sauce drawing of your choice of animal before you can drink it.  If you think thats corny, wait till you see these men and maids playing childish board games like Connect Four, and dress up in costumes on stage to take a photo with the maid of their choice.  AWKWARD!!!  It is not out right sexual, but looks like these men enjoy the rated G interaction with these pig tailed, big eye, fake eyelashes, giggling maids who look like animated dolls.  I still struggle to understand this concept.  But this is Tokyo's pop culture, and a country who sells animated pornography magazines at their local 7 - Eleven convenience stores, so their culture must find this sexy. To each their own!  An experience you'll never forget!

Home Cafe
1-11-4 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku

A must if you love manicured gardens!  The Japanese have perfected the Art of landscaping.  The sprawling grounds here are beautiful and so well kept.  Very zen.

Everyone raves about this, however I didn't find it to be one of my favorite shrines and parks in comparison to others I saw.  Don't mean to be a Debbie downer!  But don't listen to me!  Stroll the grounds and convince me otherwise.  I did LOVE the beautiful barrels of sake though!  Aren't they pretty?

Good morning Tokyo!  Do this when your suffering from jet lag, and are already awake bright and early at the crack of dawn.  Or else you'll be sleep walking!  This is where they do the fish auctions.  Like Wall Street for fish!  You have to get there early though to catch the bidding.  Really early...Like 4am!  Then of course you have to have a sushi or sashimi meal at one of the many food stalls after.  So FRESH!  Definitely two thumbs up.

There are numerous day trips near Tokyo that you could easily do to escape the big city.  We did two day trips.

Located an hour and a half by train from Tokyo.  Quite a lot to do here between the hot springs, Mt Hakone, and Lake Ashi .  Could spend the night or stay a few days to make the most of it.  My favorite thing that you MUST visit is the open air museum, which you can hang out all day at.  A hundred contemporary and classical sculptures by famous artists displayed in the landscape, with an AMAZING childrens playground made out of rainbow nets the children can climb in and out of, found inside a wooden block fort.  GENIUS - I've never seen anything like it before!  

Less then an hour away from Tokyo by train.  Depending on your level of fitness you can hike up, or take the cable car and catch some amazing views.  On a clear day you supposedly can have a great view of Mt Fuji.  We weren't that lucky!  But we did see volcanic activity along the walking trails.  Bring a nose plug - the smell is FOUL!  Look out for these black eggs 'Onsen Tamago' an egg boiled in the volcano that the Japanese believe when eaten will extend your life 7 years.  Buy one.  It's worth the shot!  Tasted like a regular boiled egg.

There are so many things for little 'uns to do in Tokyo.  Just depends how much time you want to give up to cater solely to them!  These were our picks.

Toy mecca.  This is the place to go for Snoopy Town, Hello Kitty or any toy fix.

6-1-9 Jingumae
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Are your kids Pikachu crazy?  Can't miss this then!

Shiodome Shibarikyu Building
2/ Fl 1-2-3 Kaigan
Minato-ku, Tokyo

Multi level indoor playground.  Great for a rainy day.  Endless hands on entertainment, room to run around, and fun for all ages.

1-18-24 Shibuya
Shibuya - ku, Tokyo

There are so many pretty things to buy in Japan!  Walking around you will see their knick knacks being sold everywhere such as their famous decorative Origami papers (make great cards or wrapping paper); pottery (bowls, plates, etc.);  Bamboo tatami slippers (perfect house slippers.  Socks optional!); Geisha Russian doll tins stuffed with green tea; and fancy ear picks (I use them as hair sticks in my bun).  They make great gifts to bring home.

Japanese kimonos are another prize gift to find while there.  Kimonos are beginning to make a come back with their younger generation.  But don't expect to be seeing many wearing traditional costume out and about.  It's usually reserved for special occasions, or for date night.  However I was lucky enough to catch a young lady walk into Starbucks in a kimono!  She looked so elegant.

Japanese textile and obi clothes are exquisite.  There's a store in Harajuku area that sells kimonos.  Pop in if you have a chance and view the beautiful textiles.  Might be nice to buy a kimono and use the textile to make throw pillows for your home?

6-31-21 Jingumae

If you want to purchase something for your western wardrobe you can visit one of their many upscale department stores in Tokyo such as Isetan, Mitsukoshi, or Takashimaya.  Living in NYC I'm not accustomed to shopping under one roof.  I instead found my happy place at Marunouchi Naka Dori.  Think Rodeo Drive!  A long tree lined street with boutiques and cafes, serving a mix of local and international designer brands.  Japanese fashion can be eccentric, but they are fashion forward and also have some very classic pieces with edgy details.  Their clothing is generally made from high quality fabrics and they maintain good workmanship.  It's Japan -  perfection is everything!  I scored and got a few really great pieces from local Japanese designers that are keepers in my closet from these two boutiques: Drawer & Tomorrowland.  You'll find them along Marunochi Naka Dori.


I LOVE Japanese food.  The overall food quality in Japan is Michelin quality!  I can't say that I ever had a bad meal there.  It was all so TASTY.  Their presentation is sometimes too beautiful to eat!  Look at this ornate cake made from mango slices.  Japan is definitely FOODIES paradise!

All the major department stores have a food court in their basement.  They all serve a wide range of cooked and baked food to purchase.  Great place to buy a bento box, snacks, or a picnic lunch.  So much to choose from, and everything looks so appetizing.  The hard part is deciding what your going to buy!

This is the restaurant where the movie Kill Bill was filmed.  We sat upstairs Japanese style crossed leg on the tatami mat floors.  Serving typical Japanese fare: sushi, tempura, soba, etc.  Check, check and check…we ate everything washed down with Sake!  Fun night!

Gonpachi Nishiazabu
1-13-11 Nishi - Azabu

Did you ever try this place in NYC before the chef closed up shop and moved back home to Tokyo to open shop?  MUST try the uni soba.  The best soba buckwheat noodles!

Honmura An
7-14-18 Roppongi

Robotayaki.  It's bananas in there!  Loud, fun, and interactive dining experience.  As the night prolongs and everyone starts drinking more it gets crazier!  Everyone sits around one big table.  You pick the food and you watch the men prepare and grill it for you as they crack jokes, and shout out random stuff in Japanese.

4-10-11 Roppongi

A novelty restaurant I picked for the kids.  The experience is gimmicky, as the waiters dressed as ninjas do tricks throughout the meal, and you are brought through a secret ninja passage way into the restaurant thats a dark dungeon.  The food was surprisingly good.  Their 'Foie Gras Burger' melted in my mouth!  And whats my boy drinking…Beer?  Chill Mom and Dad it's 'Kids beer'!  Shaken up Ginger Ale in a Sapporo cup. GOTCHA!

Ninja Akasaka
2-14-3 Nagatacho

Shabu-Shabu.  Japanese hot pot cooking at the table.  You can cook paper thin slices of meat, seafood, veggies, and dip them in various sauces.  Then at the end you sip the broth you've cooked everything in, doctor it with some S+P and add udon noodles.  It's DELISH!

5-8-20 Ginza
(basement of Ginza Core building)

Japan is known for their vending machines.  Gotta try ordering food from one!

This was so cool!  There is a large pool in the middle of the restaurant filled with fresh fish daily.  Your provided with nets and a fishing rod.  If your able to catch your own dinner they will grill, fry or prepare it as sashimi for you.  My eldest caught us dinner!  Now thats what you call fresh out of the water!

3-2-9 Nishi - Shinjuku

We stayed at the Peninsula Hotel.  Great location; Next door to subway station; Shopping along Marunouchi Naka Dori outside their back door, Wonderful service especially the concierge who I must give kudos to; Nice modern zen decor; Good size rooms.  Added plus - an indoor lap pool that overlooks the city.  You know we always try to stay somewhere with a pool!  Beware: Japanese are super anal.  They make you change your shoes into pool slippers they provide at the door before your allowed to enter the pool area.  Swim caps are also provided and mandatory for everyone to use, including children.  Yes you'll look like a dork, but better you wear it then be frowned upon!

The Peninsula Tokyo
1-8-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku
T: +81 3 6270 2888

2nd stop KYOTO:

Fastest way to get to Kyoto from Tokyo is on the Shinkasen bullet train that takes less then 2.5 hours.  Takuhaibin is a convenient delivery service that send your bags ahead the day before to meet you at your destinations hotel.  It's a great service, door to door, and reasonable so take advantage of it and travel light.  This is how the locals travel, so don't be the only fool on the train struggling with your bulky suitcases!  Japanese trains are punctual, it's easy to navigate yourself around the Tokyo Station since everything is in English, seats recline, and look at the leg room.  It's more comfortable then economy class on an airplane!  Pick up a yummy bento box at one of the many food stands in the train station and sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

Kyoto is amazingly GORGEOUS.  This is old Japan.  There are 17 UNESCO world heritage sites in Kyoto.  Between the beauty and the history you are in for a treat when you visit.


The streets in this neighborhood are filled with 17th century buildings.  Very picturesque, especially along Hanami - koji and Shimbashi.  Stroll through the streets, take in the architecture of old Japan and you may be lucky to catch a Geisha!  Otherwise stop in one of the many restaurants for a drink or a bite to eat.

This is my absolute #1 favorite pick!  A MUST!  A 4km path lined with 1,300 red Tori gates that form a tunnel towards the Inari shrine, dating back to the 8th century.  It's absolutely STUNNING, and if you climb for about 2 hours to the top you get rewarded with amazing views of Kyoto from the Momoyama hills!  Ever see The Gates installation in Central Park, NY back in 2005?  Similar concept, but this is the original and will blow your mind.

Put this on your list!  It's one of the most photographed attractions in Japan.  Of course our luck was against us and it was closed the day we planned to visit!  From the photos I've seen the golden temple looks beautiful reflecting in the surrounding pond below the structure.

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mshades/sets/ 

My #2 favorite pick!  Take a 10 minute walk along the dense pathway of bamboo trees between the Tenryu-ji and Okochi Sanso.  It's such a simple concept, but so ZEN and peaceful to be surrounded by bamboo thats so thick you can't hear anything except the rustling of leaves.  SURREAL.

The residence of the first Tokugawa shogun.  Known for its nightingale floors that are designed to creak with every move.  While you admire the intricate wood carvings, gold leaf ceiling and painted sliding doors inside the palace, see if you can sneak around without making a sound!  The gardens attached to this castle are also picture perfect.


One of my best childhood memories.  Exactly how I remember it.  It's changed very little which is great!  Take a 45 min train ride from Kyoto.

Nara Koen Deer Park:
Bambi galore.  You can buy crackers to feed them.  The deer are friendly but they're also use to being fed by the tourist so when they smell you with crackers they swarm you.  Don't freak out!

Todai-ji Temple:
The former Imperial Palace.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.   Houses the Great Buddha, the largest bronze Buddha I've ever seen.  You can buy a tile to donate towards the temples roof, and autograph or paint it.  There is also a huge tree trunk with a hole at the bottom.  It's suppose to be long life and good luck to pass through that.  The kids were small so slid through easily.  But there were some large adults trying to squeeze through the hole with someone trying to push them through and another person pulling them out.  It was hilarious to watch!


I call this the Universal Studios of Japan!  Power Rangers heaven!  Catch live performances, design your own Power Ranger, and see the history and evolvement of Power Rangers that date back way before even my time!  Ninja camp there was also a winner on my boys list.  They taught them some ninja moves, and challenged them to a ninja obstacle course.  Plenty of fun where you can waste many hours if not the whole day!



I love a hot bowl of ramen noodles.  Japanese version of fast food, but so much better then McDonalds!

Photo Credit: Jay Friedman

Takaraya Ramen
122-5 Ishiyacho

Great place to get your tempura fix.  You sit in front of chefs who deep fry tempura in front of you, and you eat a piece at a time so its always hot and crisp and you never see oil building up on your plate!  A small joint, so must make reservations.

Photo Credit: Louise Lister

Tempura Yoshikawa
Tominokoji Dori

Specializing in Teppanyaki where they cook in front of you on a hot iron griddle, and you can watch them chop meat and vegetable as if its an art.  Not your typical American Benihana guys!  This is authentic.  You can't go wrong ordering the marbled Wagyu beef.

Teppan Kappo Sou
Onishi Building
11 1F, Nishinocho 216-2
Nawate Dori


We stayed 2 nights at a Ryokan.  A traditional Japanese Inn.  Something different and special!  We slept on tatami mats, ate typical Japanese style on the floor, were prepared a hot bath in a wooden tub, were all given kimonos to wear, and fed a 12 course meal for dinner with a different pairing of Sake for each plate.  Presentation was beautiful, and food equally amazing.

Nakahakusancho, Fuyacho Anekoji - agaru, Nakagyo-ku
Kyoto, Japan
T: +81 075 221.1136

We stayed here for our balance 3 nights in Kyoto.  Chosen purely only for the pool!  The pool is nothing spectacular, but at least there was a pool for the kids to cool off and chill out.  Just your basic Westin business hotel.  But clean and good enough to crash!

The Westin Miyako
Keage, Sanjo, Higashiyama-ku
Kyoto, Japan
T: +81 75 771.7111

Have you caught the bug?  Diagnosis: Japanese fever!  You won't regret a trip to this corner of the world - PROMISE.  Although Summer is not the most ideal time to visit (it was bloody hot!), I would suggest you try to plan a visit in Spring during Cherry Blossom season.  Now that would be heaven on earth if your able to catch cherry blossoms in full bloom don't ya think?  I was once there at that perfect time when I was 6 years old.  I have proof - but the photo is so old its stuck inside the frame and I can't get it out!  Another strange thing - Why did my mother place me in a photo with a bunch of school boys?  Not funny Mom! HA!  I was too young to remember the beauty of cherry blossom season, but in the old photo it looks gorgeous.  On my list to witness again as an adult.  One day!  For now...Sayonara Japan!

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