Saturday, July 29, 2017

Japan: Finally!

I have ALWAYS wanted to travel to Japan. It has been THE TOP of my travel list for forever,
but the vacation time never seemed to be long enough to justify Japan, as it is so large and
there is so much to be seen and experienced. With all of the traveling that we had done, we 
just had to go with our next "long" when we had 15 days, to Japan we went. The first
two weeks of May, and it was absolutely incredible!

We had a direct flight from Abu Dhabi to Tokyo (Narita Airport) on Etihad, and it was
seamless. Narita Airport is incredible: it is logically laid out and there is very clear signage
directing you to and through an efficient customs process and onto collecting our Japan Rail
Passes, including getting our two different train passes for all the way from Tokyo to Kyoto.
We arrived in and were through the airport, and on the train from Tokyo to Kyoto, in less
than 45 minutes.

Waiting for our train from the airport to Tokyo

Bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto (less than 2 hours!)

Note on the Japan Rail Pass: There are two levels of pass, and we opted for the upgraded
Green Pass and it was completely worth it for the extra space and comfortable seats. Adam
was able to sleep where he wasn’t on the plane, and I was able to stare out the extra-large
and super clean windows as the Japanese landscape slipped by on the hour journey
into Tokyo, and then the 2 hour journey onto Kyoto. 

First impression: An absolutely beautiful and extraordinarily clean country. Rice fields and
produce greenhouses in every square inch not covered by forest or house, including in the
cities! It was beautiful.

Watching the matching as we awaited our dinner

We had a bit of an issue finding the AirBnB (like 2 hours worth after walking a few miles from the train station "to see what was around us"), but the apartment was exactly what we needed for a home base, and the remainder of the evening was perfect after the initial rough start. What's an adventure without some stumbling blocks, right? 

We opted for a quick dinner outing for our first real meal in over 24 hours, and it was incredible…I am still thinking about it:
  • Wagyu beef slice, barely seared with a blowtorch, in front of us, then wrapped around a ball of rice. It literally dissolves in your mouth, and the flavor is mind-numbingly superb
  • Slices of wagyu beef roast, one part muscle, one part other
  • Avocado, shrimp, and cabbage salad
  • All washed down with Asahi beer and plum wine

The restaurant is called Fubitosuro, and they have an English menu. That being said it is small and LOCAL. Seriously, local. You cannot even find it on the internet. Not on Google Maps, not on Trip Advisor, or even just Google. It was slightly upscale, and absolutely incredible. Absolutely delicious. I wish I could tell you where it was, but I can't (beyond the fact that it is in Kyoto). The perfect end to a really long day of travel. When you pay and go to leave, all of the staff turn to shout a farewell to you, that translates to “customer goes home”.

Thanks to the wonders of jetlag we were up BRIGHT AND EARLY the next morning, so out and about Kyoto we went to explore! 

Nothing like being first!

We spent five hours of our morning just walking around and exploring the Nishiki Market (a must-do!). It is a mix of modern and traditional, shopping and food, and definitely spans the range of Japanese culture. It spans many street blocks and it interspersed in a regular residential neighborhood almost right in the middle of the "city".

Anyone for a snack?

There were large and small temples, sacred areas and cemeteries, scattered throughout.

Standard temple

Find the chopsticks perfect for you and your needs!

Grilled tako (octopus)- One of my favorites

Grilled shrimp

Okonomiyaki: Octopus dough balls of deliciousness

Adam's only objective for the entire trip (as this was MY "epic trip"), was to eat as much ramen as a human body can hold...on a daily basis. So for lunch, we obviously went to the  #1 rated ramen restaurant in Kyoto AND Japan: Ramen Sen No Kaze.
It did not disappoint:

Lunchtime: Grilled gyoza

Lunchtime: Ramen!

It is a bar of 8 stools and two booths for 4 people. We were fortunate to time it for opening 
and were in with the first wave of eaters, while there was a continuous line queuing for 
next opportunity outside. Adam was absolutely in love, as he is a ramen fanatic, and was
already talking about returning before we had even left. We shared two different types of
ramen with pork and a small platter of steamed then grilled gyoza. Adam ordered a second
round of ramen noodles to be added to the bowl of remaining broth. While I was slightly full
and trying to save myself, I wanted to order more of the grilled pork, as it was so tender and
juicy that it melted in your mouth. It looked like it was owned and run by an older couple
and their daughter.

My kind of "juice box"!

For the afternoon and early evening, we walked around the Gion neighborhood. It is mostly shops and way too many people. What we enjoyed about it though, is that it is where traditional geisha walking around, so you can see women in dress. There is a large forest there with a few small temples that you can walk around and explore.

People ending the day hanging out along the waterway

This was normal attire, not for show

We found a nice craft beer and "natural wine" place to relax for a while and unwind from the travels, lack of sleep, and active day of exploration.

Pre-dinner libations

Dinner was at Shomin, and it was an adventure unto its own!
It is first come, first serve, and standing only. We were lucky that it was later in the evening and we walked up as two people were leaving. We had walked by earlier and there was a line of at least a dozen people. We found spots at the very farthest end of the bar and enjoyed "the show". I had been waiting ALL day for this....sashimi. I love raw fish. Serious, LOVE, raw fish. I ordered 30 pieces of sashimi, 20 ahi (tuna) and 10 salmon. They actually sent the head of the establishment (the best English speaker that they had) to ensure that I was, in fact, ordering that much sashimi. I reassured him, to which he responded "ahhh, you hungry!" After a while, and I had polished off my order, the head came back to me, and was seriously impressed. Crushed it. And all for $20.

That being said. The sashimi was HUGE portions. And incredible in flavor and freshness. The US cannot touch this (But Sushi Sono in Columbia, MD does come close!). It is the greatest value of fish of this high of quality that I have ever experienced, including the remainder of this trip in Japan.

Totally worth this chaos!

Order from this (or ask for the English menu)

The largest portions of sashimi ever. Absolutely mind-blowing!

Satiated and exhausted, we rolled back to our apartment and completely passed out after our first full day in Kyoto. The perfect day and perfect way to start this two week trip!