Having never been to Japan I was on a mission to immerse myself in its culture and cuisine. With cherry blossom forecast in hand I set out to explore.
The stay: Location, location, location…
Imperial Hotel Tokyo was the perfect launching point for sightseeing. Located in Chiyoda-Ku, near the upscale Ginza area, there were restaurants and high-end department stores at our doorstep. Our room was located in the Tower building and was modern, but a bit sterile. Would I stay here again: Absolutely!
Tip: In Japan, a good hotel concierge is crucial. Most restaurants do not accept reservations from outside Japan and require the reservations be made through a hotel concierge. The Imperial Hotel Tokyo concierge services were top notch. They were able to score reservations to both restaurants I requested three months in advance.
Japanese Street Style
Sushi-Kanesaka in Ginza, is hard to find, but once you get there you are rewarded with sushi from a Michelin one star restaurant. The staff speak very little English, but we were able to communicate our needs. The price is steep, at $250/person, but less expensive than many other Tokyo sushi restaurants. The restaurant was a perfect start to our culinary adventure.
Kondo – If rumors are true, Sukiyabashi Jiro, was not former President Obama’s first choice for dinner in Tokyo with Prime Minister Abe, but rather Tempura Kondo. The restaurant was sold out and the chef would not cancel bookings to accommodate the U.S. President. Obama’s loss was my gain! The tempura batter, at this Michelin two star restaurant, was extraordinarily light and the vegetables were amazingly fresh. The tempura sweet potato is a must order. One sweet potato served the four of us. Amazing food!
Tsukiji Market Insider Tour – We booked directly through their website and it was well worth the $99 special price. (Prices have recently increased.) Our tour was from 9:00 am – 11:00 am on a brisk Saturday morning. The Tsukiji Market is an easy walk from the Imperial Hotel. An English speaking tour guide met us at the metro stop across the street from the market and navigated our group through the outside market and then the inside market, which opens at 10:00 am. An optional extended tour is available which includes a sushi making class. Our group consisted of Americans, Italians and Chinese. Without a guide it would have been very hard to navigate through the forklifts, wheel barrels and utter chaos of a working market. This is a must do activity.
Coffee – this is how you make coffee in your room
Toilets – The toilets of Japan are heated, play music, wash and blow dry!
An hour west of Tokyo, by bullet train and shuttle, is the quaint town of Hakone, located in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Hakone is known for its hot springs resorts (onsens), and views of the iconic volcano Mt. Fuji. Hakone is a favorite destination among Japanese and tourists alike, looking for a break from the maddening pace of Tokyo.
Hyatt Regency Hakone Resort and Spa is a beautiful hotel with views of the Hakone mountains. The hotel offers both Japanese and Western- Style guest rooms and suites. The on premise Spa Izumi & Onsen is the largest spa in Hakone. The only drawback to the location is the three steep hills you must navigate to get to the train station or to restaurants, but taxis are cheap, and if you don’t feel like sweating – take one. The evening happy hour is the best! From 5 pm – 7 pm each evening, guests don their hotel kimono and head to the “living room” where complimentary drinks are served. It is quite a sight to see!
Hakone Open Air Museum – If you have limited time in Hakone head straight to this outdoor art museum – a must for every visitor. With views of the Hakone mountains the lawns are spotted with sculptures by contemporary and modern masters. The two story Picasso Pavilion is filled with his paintings, sculptures, and ceramics works.
Mt. Fuji – The self-guided tour to see Mt. Fuji involves a Tozan Train, Tozan Cable Car, Hakone Ropeway (gondola), Hakone Sightseeing Cruise and Tozan bus. It can be done in a day and is well worth the effort. Here is a map of the tour.
The payoff for your efforts is unparalleled views of the national park and Mt. Fuji.
Part of the trip includes a boat ride on caldera Lake Ashi
Itoh Dining by Nobu – The JPY 7,000 ($64.26) Chef’s Choice menu is well worth the price. Included is an appetizer, soup, salad, main course, dessert & coffee. The food was what I have come to expect from a Nobu restaurant – having dined at several across the globe.
Hotel Granvia Kyoto – is housed in the JR Kyoto Station Building. This makes it convenient if you are traveling by train, but inconvenient to the main happenings in town. The hotel was overrun by tourists and luggage was being stored right in the hotel lobby. Our room had a view of downtown Kyoto, but was small and cramped. The bathroom was tiny. Hotel Granvia Kyoto was the only hotel on our trip that actually charged us for the coffee we made ourselves in the room each morning. They also charge $10 to use the fitness facility. The nightly rate of JPY 48,000 was not worth it, but the impeccable Concierge services made it tolerable.
The concierge service helped us with dinner reservations, tickets to a geisha performance and arranged a zen meditation at Tenryuji Temple for our group of four. They even arranged a last minute 90 minute massage
Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum was a great introduction to the history of sake brewing. It is both a museum and working sake brewery. Their collection is quite extensive and well worth a visit.
Torito Marutamachi – is a well known Yakitori restaurant that lives up to its reputation. During our visit the restaurant was filled with local business people who had come for beer and delicious charcoal grilled skewers of every conceivable part of the chicken. The food was delicious.
Iroha Kitamise (North) – in the famous Pontocho Alley, had the best Sukiyaki our group had ever eaten (as voted by our group of four). Recommended by the concierge at the Four Seasons Kyoto (thank you!) we enjoyed tender slices of Kyoto sirloin beef cooked on the table iron pot, with vegetables, onions, soy sauce and crystal sugar. Served on the side were whipped raw eggs for dipping and steamed rice. Our server was dressed in traditional Kyoto attire that only enhanced our experience.
Syouraian, Kyoto is located upstream of the famous Togetsu Bridge in Arashiyama, and is known for its tofu. Reservations must be booked months in advance. Syouraian is a traditional style Japanese restaurant, and former residence of Konoe Fumimara, a prime minister of Japan. It is perched on a wooded hill, with views of both the Katsura River and Arashiyama mountains. The food was wonderful.
The lovely town of Arashiyama